Tsagaan Sar or White Month is the Mongolian New Year that follows the lunar calendar.
It has been celebrated for centuries in Mongolia and other Asian countries around the end of January or beginning of February. Tsagaan Sar is one of the two main traditional holidays celebrated by Mongolians, and it requires a lot of preparation. Before Tsagaan Sar days come all Mongolians are involved in various types of preparation. Young and old, male and female will all spend equal time in different activities. Children help their parents to clean the ger (yurt in Mongolian: also the word literally means “home”). Before Tsagaan Sar many eight to ten year old children would be seen on top of their ger wiping snow off. There are plenty of other chores done by children such as fetching water or ice (usually frozen from the river), or cutting firewood for the cooking stove. Fathers and sons clean the fence of the livestock enclosure, and trim the manes of the horses that they will ride during the holiday. Mothers and daughters clean inside their ger and sew new deels (full-length Mongolian national dresses) for every member of the family. Fitting the new deel to wear during Tsagaan Sar is a special event in itself for young children, as they are given some sweets when the deel is blessed by the elder.
Mongolians cook three important dishes for the event. During the long evenings all members of the family and their relatives gather together around the stove, which is in the centre of the ger, to make literally hundreds of “buuz”, which are steamed dumplings filled with beef, onion and fat).
Buuz are kept frozen until they are steamed for the guests. “Ul boov” which are large biscuits made of flour are the second main dish to be on the table. The biscuits are about thirty centimeters long and four centimeters thick, and they are stacked on a plate with each level laid out in a triangle or square shape.
Layers have to be odd numbers – three, five, etc – as the odd numbers represent happiness. The older the family elders the higher the stack of “ul boov” gets. During the summer months families would have already prepared many dairy products such as different types of cheese and hard curds (these are white foods, to match the White Month) which would decorate the stack of “ul boov”, interspersed with small sweets. Lastly, almost the whole back of a sheep, with a big fatty tail – “uuts” – would be cooked for Tsagaan Sar. Mongolians try to cook a sheep with as big a tail as possible, symbolizing wealth and prosperity for the family.
On the eve of Tsagaan Sar, called“bituun”, families spend the evening cooking dumplings. Before eating “buuz” and tasting “uuts”, Mongolians first offer them to the deities, the sky, the land, and mountains. The celebration starts in a small family circle and they play special Tsagaan Sar games with sheep or goat’s knucklebones.
-20°C (-4F) is no obstacle to celebrating Tsagaan Sar in Mongolia. Early in the morning of Tsagaan Sar, Mongolians will get up, put on their new deel, and go outside to walk in different directions alone or in couples to make their first steps of the New Year according to their lunar calendar horoscopes. Long celebration starts when younger people visit older ones to pay their respects. Usually children visit their parents first and then other elderly people. The younger ones greet their elders by putting their arms out, palms upward, under the latter’s forearms. In most cases, the people will also hold a “hadag” – a blue, yellow or white silk scarf used for greeting each other, sometimes given as a present to old people to show respect. Men wear their traditional pointed hats, and women should wear hats or scarves during greetings. Mongolians treat their hats as an important part of the body. Hats are never seen on the floor or upside down: like the head, they should remain high.
Another greeting custom involves people exchanging their snuff bottles, offering them with open right hand while touching under their right elbow with the left hand. Men can have quite large bottles made of expensive stone, whereas women’s are smaller. After receiving a snuff bottle a man will normally open it and take a pinch of snuff, sneeze appreciatively, then return it, but a woman should not open the bottle, she should just sniff a half-open cap and give it back.
After the greetings, visitors would be given a cup of milk tea with or without salt. It is a custom that guests are first served with a cup of tea without being asked. The family steams “buuz” for the visitors, and guests try some meat and dairy products but nobody touches the “ul boov”. Mongolian “shimiin arkhi” (vodka made of cows milk) and “airag” (fermented mare’s milk or kumiss) would be served as alcohol.
Having had some talk and drinks, guests receive presents before leaving. According to Mongolian tradition, guests do not usually bring presents. Tsagaan Sar lasts for about a month in total. In the first three days of Tsagaan Sar people should visit the primary members of their family or important people among their friends. After that “uuts” and the stack of “ul boov” on the table are not as big as they were. Families would still expect late visitors for a while. Finally, the rest of “uuts” and “ul boov” are sent to be shared with relatives. Families receive one boov with other parts of Tsagaan Sar food. For the next month people would be eating the remaining “buuz” and “ul boov”.
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