Mongolian only winter traditional celebration is Tsagaan Sar
- By Dashmaa D -
- Feb 20,2023
Tsagaan Sar, which literally means “White Moon”, is the biggest national and traditional winter holiday in Mongolia celebrated since the 13th century. Tsagaan sar is the Mongolian Lunar New Year Celebration and celebrated actively from the first through third days of the first lunar month indicating the spring be
ginning in Mongolia. In 1206, when Temuujin established the Great Mongol Empire and proclaimed himself as the Chinggis Khaan, he ordered to celebration Tsagaan Sar in spring aiming to raise peace, kindness, and respect among the people. Mongols used to celebrate the holiday by wearing all white, riding white horses, eating white foods made from dairy products (dairy products in Mongolia are called “white food”), and exchanging white gifts.
From 1950 to the 1960s, Tsagaan Sar was celebrated only in the countryside as a Herder Festival and banned in the city. Later in 1988, this important traditional holiday re-began to be celebrated as the first day of the Lunar New Year nationwide. Nowadays it turns out a family-oriented holiday that shows respect to the elderly and encourages younger Mongolians to learn about their traditions and cultures. Furthermore, it is considered a holiday to cheer up herders for successfully passing the harsh winter and a celebration for welcoming the warmer days of spring.
Tsagaan Sar allows all Mongolians to be proud of their national heritage, culture, tradition, and custom. Tsagaan Sar promotes families and people to be united, strengthens the family bond, and enables people to get to know their family tree.
Preparation for the Tsagaan Sar
People have to welcome the New Year and celebrate the Tsagaan Sar with an optimistic mind, kind heart, and pure soul without dark thoughts. It is prohibited to do, think and say bad things during the holiday. Also, the debts must be repaid before the New Year and no one should argue during the holiday as it is believed that the entire year ends up being with arguing and quarreling.
The homes, clothes, and people must be cleaned too. Mongolians believe that good luck comes where there is cleanliness. In this regard, there is a ton of preparation work before Tsagaan Sar. At least one month before the holiday, all families are busy cleaning their homes and yards, repairing the broken household furniture and appliances, getting their traditional garment called “Deel” ready, and preparing the special food which will be served during the holiday. Especially families with elders prepare a big feast table symbolizing prosperity and fullness in the coming year as well as gifts for the guests. Even the preparation work involves and unites all family members, relatives, and neighbors.
Tsagaan Sar foods and drinks
The first thing you are offered when you visit the Mongolian family is milk tea. It is one of the most common hot drinks in Mongolia and it is often drunk throughout the day, especially in winter. Making Mongolian tea is simple, you need water, tea leaves, milk, and a pinch of salt (it is optional). Note that the water must be boiled first with the tea leaves to make sure it is safe to drink. The milk can go from a goat, sheep, or cow. Generally, cow milk is widely used. When all ingredients are combined, the next important step is to stir it by scooping up the milk and pouring it from a height above the pot of tea. It is typical in Mongolia that lady of the house makes milk tea every morning and offers it first to the mother earth and father sky. Then she serves the milk tea to her husband, father, or son. Generally, the tea and the meal should be served first to the host of the family or the men in the house.
This is the second dish you should taste when you are visiting with a family during the Tsagaan Sar. Tsagaalga is made with curd, rice, and raisin combined with clotted cream, yellow butter, milk, flour, sugar, and salt. The most important ingredient of the Tsagaalga is the traditional dairy product curd. The dish is believed to whiten and purify the darks.
Layers of long pastries or cookies shaped like shoe sole called Ul or kheviin boov is the main decoration of the biggest festivals in Mongolia. Ul boov has patterns in the center which are stamped with a wooden pattern. These pastries are stacked in an odd number of layers upward. Each layer consists of four pastries making it four-sided, thus symbolizing the cardinal directions. Due to the first layer representing happiness and the second one representing suffering, the layers must always end in happiness. Technically, Mongolians have a philosophy on odd digits, exemplifying a circle of life that starts with and ends in happiness.
The number of layers depends on the age of the elderly and the social status of the family. A middle-aged family set up five layers and young families three while a family with elders stacks seven or nine layers and State heads nine. Some families use big dried curds instead of pastries in recent years.
Uuts is a sheep’s whole back with its fatty tail. It is boiled two or three days before the Tsagaan Sar in a big pot full of water with salt and left outside for freezing. Uuts is served on the big feast tables including Tsagaan Sar and wedding ceremonies. On Tsagaan Sar Eve, the host of the family cut the first slices of the uuts and offers it to the fire and earth and then to the family members. During Tsagaan Sar, guests have to taste the Uuts which is usually offered and cut by the host of the family. Every night the uuts is kept in a cooler place or outside preventing it from decaying.
Fermented mare’s milk also known as Airag is the traditional beverage of Mongolia. It is consumed more in summer due to the milking season of horses running between mid-June to September. However, people freeze the airag until Tsagaan Sar and drink it. Airag is made by fermenting raw unpasteurized mare`s milk over hours or days, often while stirring or churning by the whole family and guests throughout the fermentation period. During the fermentation, lactobacilli bacteria acidify the milk, and yeasts turn it into a carbonated and mildly alcoholic drink. It tastes slightly sour and contains up to 2 to 3 percent of alcohol.
It is a kind of dumpling which is usually filled with beef, mutton, onions and salt. The main ingredients are flour, minced or chopped meat, onion, salt, black pepper, and cumin. Once the country has an extremely cold winter, families prepare the buuz at least a couple of weeks before the festival and left outside to freeze which makes it easier to store. A family with elders makes an average of 1000 buuz or more for the guests. On the other hand, buuz making process allows families to gather and work together. During the Tsagaan Sar, guests have to eat at least one buuz during the visit or it would be considered rude. Buuz is usually served with salads, ketchup, and different types of pickled vegetables. Besides the main foods and drinks, the Tsagaan Sar table has vodka, non-alcoholic beverages, fruits, nuts, candies, and a variety of salads. Being hungry or staying on an empty stomach during the Tsagaan Sar is considered unacceptable in Mongolia. We say “Enjoy your meal” in Mongolian as “Saikhan Hoollooroi”.
Tsagaan Sar Eve
After noon of the Tsagaan sar eve day aka Bituun day, depending on that year’s astrology, people wear fancy traditional clothes, set the table beautifully and put the prepared food on it, offer them to the fire and earth, the hostess should start offering tea to the owner of the house.
Bituun day’s meal consists of a closed head or chest of a sheep without the chin pointed. We also place the shoulder blades of the sheep, four tall, wedged, and flaked sides on top, with the chest facing up. If the head is closed, they put onion and garlic in their mouths to represent herbs and put a bunch of greens on one of their heads. At the end of the day, they steam the buuz and make soup rice, and deliver them to their neighbors. Families put coin or something else in the buuz to make it a lucky buuz and whoever finds it considered fortunate throughout the upcoming year.
Since it is the last day of the old year, this celebration bids the departing year farewell. The rest of that day is spent cleaning the family shrines in the ger, sorting out any disputes or unfinished business with others and performing various charitable deeds, such as feeding one’s family dog and livestock generously.
The owner of the house first cuts the sheep tail in nine parts (head, beak, two jaws, two ears, two sides of the loin) and offers it to the fire and earth and distributes it to the people in the house. Alcohol is served to people over fifty.
First day of Tsagaan Sar
On the first day of the Tsagaan Sar, people have to wake up before sunrise and put on their new or clean clothes. Then men climb to the nearest hill or mountain to watch the first sunrise of the New Year while women make milk tea at home and offer it to earth and make her wishes for the best of their family. Tsagaan Sar proper begins with a ritual called ‘mur gargah’ (to set forth one’s tracks). Generally, the head of the family will have consulted a lama or used a Buddhist astrological almanac, to obtain specific instructions for each family member based on the animal-year of their birth. Each person then carries out these instructions, which involve setting out from home in a particular direction, performing a ritual gesture such as scattering a particular substance while reciting their chosen mantra between seven to 21 times, and then returning home from a specific different direction. Performing this ritual is intended to bring fortune and success in the coming year and to ensure family wellbeing. Thereafter, they visit their parents, grandparents, or elder relatives. Mongolians perform a special greeting called “Zolgolt” during the holiday. When greeting someone, the younger person stretches both arms with palms facing upward under the older person’s arms. The older person puts their arm on the top while the younger one’s arm goes underneath supporting the elbow of the older one. Then the younger should say “Amar baina uu?” first meaning “How are you?” in the respectful manner. In turn, the elder responds and kisses or sniffs both cheeks of the younger one. Each visit must start with zolgolt to the eldest one in the house and go from oldest to the youngest on the table.
It is common to greet the elders with money and blue scarf called Khadag
Afterward, guests take a seat and exchange stone snuff bottles aka khuurug that contain powdered tobacco asking each other "How was your overall health last year?”. If you are visiting herder family, it sounds pleasant to ask “Did your livestock pass the winter fat?”. Meanwhile, the guests were served milk tea first and dairy products then the buuz comes along. Guests have to taste everything offered by the host or the main dishes on the table. Each visit lasts more or less 30 minutes if you have numerous families to visit. When guests leave, the host family gives gifts to everyone to thank their visit. The gifts are usually a bar of chocolates or candy, clothes, especially socks, cash, or household items. Note that guests have to receive the gifts with two hands. The first 15 days are significant but Tsagaan Sar holiday lasts for 3 days officially. When people finished visiting their parents, grandparents, and elder relatives, they visit their neighbors and other old people’s house they know. On the seventh day of the Tsagaan Sar, people were taboo to go out of their homes to visit other families and greet them. Moreover, there are some rituals primarily linked with Buddhism. Many people go to temples or monasteries to hear prayers and chants for the well-being of the New Year.
Dos and Don'ts of Tsagaan Sar
Following is the list of main Dos and Don'ts that you should keep in mind;
- When you greet someone, make sure to start from the oldest person, you can usually define it by how people have seated at the table. Note that you must greet the most senior people first then the order of age.
- If you are offered a khuurgu, receive it with your right hand and give back the snuff bottle with the loosened cap indicating there is no feud between you. There is a rule that says giving back the khuurgu closed means you are mad or have a feud with the khuurug owner.
- Husband and wife are prohibited to perform “Zolgolt”. It is believed to lead to divorce or bad luck. Also, pregnant women don’t do “Zolgolt” with each other as it is believed that the sex of babies could be changed.
- Wearing something new on the first day is strongly encouraged. It can be anything, but wearing something new is important.
Mongolians follow an astrological calendar called Tugs Buyant and the dates are different every year. Therefore, our Tsagaan sar dates are usually different from the rest of the Asian people’s lunar calendars and there is a month difference. Mainly it occurs from January to March. This year, the first day of Tsagaan Sar falls on February 21. The upcoming lunar year is the "Year of Rabbit”. If you want to know about Mongolian culture deeply, Tsagaan sar is your must-see festival. If your friends or colleagues invite you to their house during Tsagaan sar, consider yourself lucky and accept the offer.
Happy Tsagaan Sar!