The Lunar New Year arrived early this year, along with a blanket of white snow. Since ancient times, Mongolians have celebrated the “White Moon” as a good omen and letting go of the negative experiences and feelings of the past. Mongolians use milk as a symbol of a mother’s pure love and offer milk to Mother Nature and the sky. Milk is white and represents the purity of life. This is the reason Mongolians call the holiday “Tsagaan Sar” or “White Moon”.
The meaning of Tsagaan Sar is to get to know one’s extended family members by respecting elders and visiting each other. Traditionally, there are many rituals for Tsagaan Sar. For example, changing bad behaviors, such as the three sins of anger, greed and foolishness, and instead, doing a few good deeds is essential. Ulaanbaatar resident Jargal states that it’s important to be acquainted with one’s extended family members, and Tsagaan Sar is definitely a chance to find out more about your family tree. She continues, it’s easy to have family members get lost in these modern days. It is critical for family members to try to find relatives just in case, and prevent future embarassments.
Originally, Tsagaan Sar was in the Fall because it was time of abundance in fat livestock and dairy products. In 1206, when Chinggis Khaan established the Mongolian Empire, he ordered all Mongolians to celebrate Tsagaan Sar in the first month of the spring when grass blossoms, dairy products are available, and livestock are set to deliver offspring. Since then, Mongolians followed each year by the traditional lunar calendar and the position of the stars, and eventually the first day of the first spring month was officially recognized as Tsagaan Sar.
The black night without a moon, “Bituun”, or Tsagaan Sar’s Eve refers to the youngest night of the old year. Everything is supposed to be complete, meaning the past year was rich and the coming year will be also prosperous. During Bituun everybody cleans house, completes all the year’s unfinished business, and pays any money owed to others. By doing this, it is said that fortune will smile on them. A younger couple who live in the city cheerfully said that they returned the money they borrowed from their cousin with sincere gratitude. They felt so relieved that they managed to welcome the Horse Year without any debt.
The Bituun ritual starts after sunset. Everybody must wear clean and neat clothes as well as decorate their home with their finest things. Families both in the city and country put clean ice or snow on the right door-post of their home to bring good omens for the family. At the same time, by putting some bush, hogweed, and thorns on the left door-post, the family will be protected against bad omens. Naidan and his children, who live near the Tuul River, brought clear ice from the river for Bituun’s ritual. His wife did massive quantities of laundry before Bituun and kept busy with ironing and cleaning family member’s clothes.
For Bituun, families prepare bansh, rice with raisins, and three types of meat – one for Bituun, one for exchanging with other family, and one for offering to their shrine. On Bituun everybody is supposed to eat until they get full. After Bituun festivities, people mostly stay at home or visit elder family members to share traditional stories and play knucklebones. Everything negative – thoughts, words, attitudes – is prohibited during Bituun.
After Bituun, is Lunar New Year’s Day. It actually starts very early in the morning, when everybody checks the horoscopes for their birth year to determine rituals and destinies. It is to avoid bad things and clear a path for a good year. After that, younger children and relatives visit and show respect to elder family members by offering a blue khadag (prayer scarf). We call this “zolgolt”, the greeting especially for offering khadag and gifts to older people. The elders kiss the two cheeks of the greeter. After zolgolt, the elder host family offers all kinds of food and refreshments, exchanges snuff bottles and starts the conversation by discussing all good things.
Mongolians prepare two kinds of refreshments for Tsagaan Sar, one is brown and the other is white. The brown refreshments include meat, buuz, bansh and traditional fermented vodka. The white refreshments include all dairy products, traditional biscuits (ul boov), and fermented milk. Ul boov is supposed to be five to seven layers high, built by laying three ul boov on a plate filled with other small biscuits on the base of the plate.
Davga’s family in Bayangol district made 900 buuz this year because they expected to have so many visits from extended family members and friends. His family bought beef and lamb meat from Huchit Shonkhor Zah, which was cheaper than any other place, and made buuz with caraway and onion. They collected gifts for the guests and family members, from pairs of socks to t-shirts. They admitted that they really tried to choose meaningful and practical gifts, such as mobile units and money for kids.
Tsagaan Sar is widely celebrated, not only in Mongolia but also across the world by the Mongolian community who live abroad. On Lunar New Year’s day everything is busy yet nobody seems angry or frustrated. Instead, everyone is friendly and smiling despite the terrible one to two hour traffic jams in some areas of Ulaanbaatar. Everybody’s phones are busy with international and domestic calls from children to their parents and grandparents.
Expats in Mongolia also celebrated Tsagaan Sar and shared their experiences with us. A group of young, vibrant and bright-eyed expats enthusiastically shared their local experiences and impressions during Tsagaan Sar. The majority of them had some experience in working and living in the countryside and were familiar with tradition. Most of them visited at least five family friends, some even visited 15 families during Tsagaar Sar.
One expat found it stunningly curious and unexpected when her hosts offered and insisted that she ride a camel after the greeting ceremony and refreshments. One of them went to the mountains to see the New Year’s Day sunrise with his family and friends. That was a very unique and significant experience for him, even though he felt chilly. Exchanging and smelling many snuff bottles was a quite challenging for one expat, who instantly sneezed during Tsagaan Sar.
Tsagaan Sar is a holiday that gives locals a chance to locals to dress up in Mongolian costumes. It’s the same for expats, who all had costumes to show off pictured with the Tsagaan Sar table settings to shared with their family members and friends back home. As for refreshments, they ate lots of buuz. One expat admitted that he ate 157 buuz during this Tsagaan Sar. Two years ago there was a record set at his organization by a staff member who ate 138 buuz in one day, so he had to beat that record by eating 157 buuz this year. Others ate nearly 50 or 60 buuz. Two of them had lucky buuz with coins, a sign of good luck. It means the coming year will bring prosperity and lucky events.
One guest from Europe was on a brief visit to Ulaanbaatar and was kindly invited to celebrate with a colleague’s family. The most impressive thing for him was the table setting with big sheep meat with the fat and head of a sheep. He heard of Tsagaan Sar before his arrival, but never expected to see a whole sheep displayed on the table. He quite enjoyed his first Tsagaan Sar experience.
Mongolians are happily expecting spring right after Tsagaan Sar. Since the White Moon holiday came early, it means spring will arrive early too. Tsagaan Sar is a really delightful holiday because we gracefully let go of past negative experiences and feelings. Everybody can greet each other and offer well wishes, even to strangers on the street. Right after Tsagaan Sar is a new week. Businesses resume their routines smoothly. People cheerfully start the new year with white snow and pure thoughts.
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