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Translated as White Moon, Tsagaan Sar is one of the most important celebrations in Mongolia that marks the end of winter and the beginning of spring – a new year’s cycle. After a long, tiring and harsh winter, it was necessary for Mongolian nomads to celebrate the arrival of spring, bring the festivity, and reunite with the whole family, extended and immediate family members alike. This heartwarming celebration usually coincides with other Lunar New Year celebrations as it occurs from the first to third days of the first lunar month, but it is a unique annual celebration of Mongolia with traditional values.
As nomads who constantly travel to find fresh pastures for their livestock to graze on, Mongolians hardly crossed paths with relatives for months or years even. However, Tsagaan Sar is a family celebration that encourages people to visit their relatives and distant family members, nurture and strengthen family ties, and bond with new members, such as in-laws and newborns. It is a sacred time to pay respect to elders, bid them good health, and learn more about traditions and customs of the country.
Historic records indicate that Mongolians celebrated Tsagaan Sar in autumn since the establishment of statehood as “Tsagaan Ideenii Bayar” (White Feast Festival). Later in 1206, Mongolia’s greatest ruler, Chinggis Khaan, decreed to mark this festival at the beginning of spring when the weather becomes warmer, plants start to flower, and baby livestock are born.
In the 17th century, Tsagaan Sar incorporated religious ties, molding into the celebration we know today. The white color is the symbol of sincerity and happiness in Mongolia. Hence, the celebration is named Tsagaan Sar or White Month/ Moon. It is now an official public holiday that spans three days, though the festivity and house-visits sometimes last longer.
There is a lot to prepare ahead of Tsagaan Sar, starting from food and traditional pastries to gifts and clothes. Usually, families spend weeks to prepare. This is mostly because they need to make one of the key dishes, buuz.
Buuz is similar to steamed dumpling with meat stuffing. Buuz is the perfect dish to serve during large festivals such as Tsagaan Sar since you can make tons in advance and take it out of the freezer when guests arrive. It only takes 20 minutes to cook in a steamer and are not only easy to eat but also delicious. The flour wrapping helps it stay warm for a longer time too.
Families make around 2,000 pieces of buuz for the celebration, but it varies depending on the family and the number of visitors they’re expecting. Children, parents and grandparents all gather around the kitchen to neatly fold this traditional dish – a skill that requires years to master. Cleansed coins are sometimes put inside a couple of buuz to see who’ll have the most luck and fortune in the coming year.
Another preparation is clothing. Mongolians prefer to wear new outfits during their visits to relatives because they believe it is like starting afresh in the new year – they also want to look their best during visits to relatives. The traditional clothing of Mongolia, the deel, and other attire with traditional designs have been the choice of wear for Tsagaan Sar for centuries. For a while, people had switched to western garments for better mobility and comfortableness but lately, they have taken a newfound interest in traditional wear as local brands continue to render new designs and launch impressive collections.
Another popular set of clothing is, without doubt, cashmere outfits. Whether it’s a scarf, a dress or a sweater, Mongolians like to wear cashmere during the holiday as it exudes elegance and luxuriousness. The soft textile also keeps them warm during their visits as it’s still chilly outside at the beginning of spring.
Bituun – The Eve of Tsagaan Sar
The day before Tsagaan Sar is called Bituun. It is customary to do all cleaning and preparations during Bituun and eat until one is full to signifiy a fortunate year’s end.
Families set up the feast table, with the ‘idee’ and ‘uuts’ being the focal point. Idee is a stack of traditional long pastries known as ‘ul boov’ and is an essential part of an important feast table. Mongolians make sure to stack the pastries in odd number of tiers as it is believed that the first layer signifies happiness and fortune, the second sadness and distress, and it goes on in alternation. Like the name White Moon, only white and light-colored snacks – white nuts, cheese, sugar cubes, candies, urum (coagulated foamy cream) and aaruul (dried curd) to name a few – can be put on the idee as decoration.
On the other hand, uuts is a lamb’s hide and fatty tail that is cooked whole. It is a must for a feast table. The bigger and fatter the hide is, the better it demonstrates the household’s wealth and prosperity as well as the fact that their livestock have fattened up well over winter. Lamb’s breast, fore-leg, hind-leg and cervical vertebrae are placed on top of the hide. As you can see, food is an important part of Tsagaan Sar and children often look forward to the lavish feast and delicacies they’ll enjoy during the holiday.
There is a to-do list for bituun that will help start the new year on a happy note. This includes giving back what’s borrowed, apologizing for mistakes, and ending an argument with others. But it is important to stay at home on bituun to properly bid farewell to the old year. Some things you’re not allowed to do on this day include throwing away dirty water outside (leads to injuries), calling infants and toddlers by their name (makes them vulnerable to bad spirits), spending the night out (the soul gets lost), starving (brings hunger and starvation in the new year), and arguing with others.
It is said that a local deity named Baldanlkham rides her mule on the eve of Tsagaan Sar. As the deity makes three rounds at each family during the day, Mongolians put three pieces of ice cubes on the top of the door of the ger, or on the balcony if they live in an apartment, for the mule to drink.
Everyone should wake up bright and early on the first day of Tsagaan Sar and get ready for new year’s greetings with the eldest or head of the family. Some people hike to the highest peak of a mountain to watch the first sunrise of the new year and replenish their energy.
There is a special way of greeting during Tsagaan Sar called zolgolt. Young people greet their parents first by placing both their hands underneath the elders’ elbows to show respect. This is also believed to give energy to the elder so that they can get through another year. If two people are the same age, they place one hand above the other’s elbow and the other hand underneath. Married couples don’t greet each other as they are considered to be one whole person. Performing zolgolt among spouses is believed to bring quarrels and breakup.
Gatherings begin at the home of the eldest family member and people greet each other in the order of genealogical seniority, traditionally presenting them with some white food or delicacy but nowadays people usually give gifts or cash. When greeting eldest members, Mongolians gift khadag, a long ceremonial silk, to honor them. Instead of “Sain baina uu?” (Hello), everyone says “Amar baina uu?” (How do you do?) on the New Year’s Day, followed by inquiry of their health.
The first dish to taste on this day should be tsagaalga, a dairy dish consisting of cooked rice mixed with raisins, sugar and butter or rice with curd. Then, you should try something from the idee and the host distributes carved pieces of meat from the uuts to guests. Instead of alcohol, Mongolians drink airag, a traditional drink made of fermented mare’s milk, but nowadays, alcohol is placed on the table as airag is difficult to acquire in spring.
Mongolians believe that the actions and attitude you have during Tsagaan Sar defines the rest of the year. Therefore, they frown on any conflict, argument, binge drinking, overspending, fighting and wrongdoings during the celebration.
Since Tsagaan Sar is a significant traditional holiday, there are many rules and customs to it. Here are some things that you must never do during Tsagaan Sar.
Taboos of Tsagaan Sar
Games and gifts
When the whole family is gathered, what better ways is there to spend time than play games, sing folk songs and tell stories?
Mongolian traditional games mostly involve animal ankle-bones. Children especially enjoy playing dibs, such as durvun berkh (four dibs), which requires casting four dibs or game pieces. Other traditional games are Arvan khoyor jil (twelve years), maliin zayagaa bodokh (calculation of animal destiny), suulnii yasaar shodokh (to draw by caudal vertebrae), or a sign of luck, wheel and uichuur. These games are devoted to test one’s luck. The games range from shooting balls to wrestling, to shooting ankle-bones, to breaking off animal bones as a way of testing one’s strength and ability.
There’s also a game called alag melkhii (colorful tortoise), which is also played with ankle-bones. Players have to cast dice in order to capture bones set out in the shape of a tortoise. This game has strict rules and players have to sit in a semi-circle. The player who collects the most ankle-bones is the winner and is considered to be particularly lucky in the coming year.
A large-scale wrestling match is also held among wrestlers from all over the country on the occasion of Tsagaan Sar.
One of the most important traditions of Tsagaan Sar is gift-giving. Before guests leave, the host gives out small gifts, such as candy, everyday products, clothing, socks and cash among other things. The gift is a token of appreciation for coming to visit.
To wrap up, Tsagaan Sar is a heartwarming celebration that welcomes the new year and brings families closer. Even though we’ll be unable to visit relatives this year due to the global pandemic, we can still preserve the tradition and greet each other through the internet and video calls. We wish you a Happy Tsagaan Sar and a prosperous lunar new year ahead!
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