Though technically there's only a few days of formal celebration of the holiday, we're told the festivities can last much longer, even weeks, and that it's hard to accomplish much during that time. We look forward to experiencing our first Tsagaan Sar in Bayankhongor with friends and colleagues who have already extended invitations over three days, and then make a trip to the other side of the country to celebrate with our host families.
Unlike the Christmasy New Year celebrations Mongolians hold on January 1 as a Communist leftover, this holiday helps Mongolians re-tap their herder roots with traditional dress, food and greetings.
To help explain more about what and when it is, we have specially edited materials from our lovely and helpful Peace Corps language coordinator, Ganaa. Read on.
Part I. What is the Tsagaan Sar?
The new year according to the Oriental lunar calendar in Mongolia is called Tsagaan Sar, which translates as the "White Month" or "White Moon." There are many opinions about the origin of the name, but Mongolians use white to symbolize happiness, purity and an abundance of milk products.
Some researchers believe that the lunar calendar was invented by the nomadic tribes of Central Asia and a number of Eastern and Central Asian countries, including Mongolia, have followed the lunar calendar since ancient times. The calendar consists of 12 years with 12 months in a year and 12 hours in a day. The years bear the names of animals, like the upcoming Year of the Cow, and Mongolians judge the coming year by the animal name it bears.
1. The Year of the Mouse promises good livestock productivity, especially in camels.
2. It snows heavily in the Year of the Cow and there is plenty of food and milk.
3. The Year of the Tiger is rather hard at the end.
4. The Year of the Hare is favorable at the beginning and spells disasters at the end.
5. The Year of the Dragon is rainy and floods may occur.
6. The Year of the Snake brings many disruptions and worries.
7. The Year of the Horse is also rather disturbing,
8. but the Year of the Sheep that follows it is favorable in all respects.
9. The Year of the Monkey, although cold and troublesome, brings in a bumper harvest.
10. The Year of the Cock is one of fertility and higher birth rate.
11. The Year of the Dog is severe at the beginning and kind towards the end.
12. The concluding Year of the Pig promises rich harvests, yet food shortages, should they occur, will hit hard.
Nowadays there is an argument among Mongolian astrologers about the celebration date of Tsagaan Sar because depending on the phases of the moon and the calendar used, it falls anywhere between the end of January and early March. Some say we should follow the lunar calendar invented by Tibetans, while others prefer to follow the one used by the Chinese. Either way, this year's Tsagaan Sar will be celebrated on the 25th or 26th of February. [Most people will celebrate on the 25th.]
New Year’s Eve in Mongolia is called “Bituun” - the last dinner of the old year. One must eat all the traditional dishes that evening: boiled lamb or beef, a huge variety of milk products, buuz or bansh (large or small meat and fat-filled steamed dumplings) and desserts. Many families have the tradition of placing coins inside the buuz/bansh and whoever bites into the one with the coins will have good luck. At the end of the evening, everyone’s stomach is fully satisfied.
The following morning everyone rises bright and early to walk outside of their house in the correct direction, which is indicated in their horoscope of the year. This symbolizes that the destiny of each person is directed correctly for the upcoming year. Then family members then gather around the eldest in the family and greet each other by wishing him a very happy new year.
Part II. Tsagaan Sar Celebration Customs
At sunrise of the new day, hosts and his guests dress in new dells and greet each other in a special manner. First, the youngest greets the eldest as the older person holding out his/her arms. The elder puts his hands palms down on the arms of the younger one and both pronounce traditional good wishes and rub cheeks while the older person sniffs on either side of the face, which is considered the Mongolian traditional “kiss”. Even if new year celebrations are over, friends and relatives meeting for the first time that year greet each other in this manner. [Nathan witnessed this in July when host family members visited from far away for the first time that year.]
In towns and cities, Tsagaan Sar is celebrated for 1-3 days and in the countryside villages, the reveling continues for about a week or more. Guests may come and go at any time of the day and families serve guests with plenty of meals: buuz/bansh, salads, vodka, etc. Families also give small gifts to their guests.
Traditions and customs are different from place to place and from family to family. Even for Mongolians, it is impossible to follow every tradition, but by observing and practicing you can learn a lot.
General tips during Tsagaan Sar:
- When visiting, greet the oldest member of the family first
- When you greet the eldest, give a small amount of 500-1000 tugriks to them depending on your site custom. Some places don’t do that.
- Dress nicely. Mongolians like to greet the new year by making everything new, so many people buy or sew new dells (traditional long robes with a contrasting cloth or leather belts).
- During Tsagaan Sar, people visit many families in one day. If you are going to many families, save room to eat 2-3 buuz with each family. It is polite to taste everything (start with white food), candy, cakes, meat, salads, whatever, but just a little bit. If you are a strict vegetarian, it is OK to say “Bi makh iddegui.” (I don’t eat meat at all).
- When offered vodka or airag (fermented mare's milk) and you wish not to drink it, accept it and simply bring it to your lips then return it.
- When you have visitors, the best thing to do is to keep your pot full of hot water and have tea ready. Candy/cookies are always good to offer. You do not need to prepare an elaborate meal; this should not be expected of you.
- When someone gives a gift to you, receive it with both hands and DON’T put it on the floor.