18 February 2015

Mongolia's Tsagaan Sar - Lunar New Year

February 19th is Mongolian Lunar New Year -  the second new moon after the winter solstice.

New moon rising over Khongoryn Els sand dunes in the southern Gobi. Image by our guest Egon Filter.
Mongolian New Year is known as Tsagaan Sar - White Month. It is a deeply traditional holiday bringing together family members and lasts a minimum of three days. The year of the Wooden Horse has finished and the year of the Blue Sheep just starting (sheep are considered 'fortunate' animals representing fortune and peace).

The last night of the lunar year—when the moon is invisible and darkness is total—is New Year’s Eve, known in Mongolia as ‘Bituun' - meaning to close down. 

Turuu and Ganba, Tsagaan Sar, 2014
On bituun people eat to be full - it is believed that if you stay hungry you will be hungry for the coming year. On the Tsagaan Sar table will be bread, meat, up to (or more than) 1000 buuz (dumplings) and the fat tail of a sheep. According to custom, the fattest sheep should be killed and the lower back and tail boiled and served on the table for the entire holiday.

This is what 1500 Mongolian dumplings look like! As made by Turuu and his family

Tradition states that before starting the meal, the host parts with the old year in a symbolic ceremony. Having placed a leg of mutton on his plate, he slices it and gives everyone a piece. Then he breaks the bone and draws out the marrow, thus symbolizing the opening of the New Year.

On the morning of the New Year everyone rises bright and early to greet the sun. Traditionally, members of the household honour the nature and spirits of Mongolia by going to an ovoo - a stone shrine placed on a hill or mountain top. They will take food and offerings and the oldest will voice words of gratitude and praise to the spirit of the mountain and the surrounding area. Turuu always says that the air on the first day of Tsagaan Sar is fresh and clean, reminding him that they have successfully passed winter, and that spring has arrived.

One of my trip assistants (Oyun) joined  a volunteer group called Jack's Tours for sunrise on January 1st 2015.  They climbed Tsetsee Gun - the highest peak (2256m) of the Bogd Khan mountain range that dominates the landscape south of Ulaanbaatar. In Mongolia, the practise of greeting the rising sun from a high place is connected with their (still current) shamanistic beliefs. As the rising sun brings forth the birth of a new beginning, a new day, a new life. so it should be greeted with great respect. 
In order to have health and happiness in the new year each individual must take their 'first steps of the New Year'. Their lunar year of birth and the current year will dictate the direction that they walk in - it is believed to be important to start your way in the right direction on the first day of the new year.

After the first steps are taken all family members re-enter their home and start the Tsagaan Sar greetings. The snuff bottle is passed round. During New Year's Day children honour their senior relatives in a formal greeting called 'zolgokh' when the younger person places their arms under the elder person's and hold their elbows  to show support and respect for them as their elder.  White and blue scarves, khadag,are presented to the most honoured as a symbol of respect (white scarves symbolise milk and the blue the Eternal Sky).

 As Tsagaan Sar is celebrated by Mongolians all previous things pass away with the previous year. As the new crescent moon rises so the new year starts - positive and white (or clean). During Tsagaan Sar you should not be angry, greedy or sad. 

If you would like to read more about Tsagaan Sar, there was an interesting article on the personal meaning behind Tsagaan Sar in the UB Post last year.

Turuu and Enkhee are currently with the Zorgio family at Tsagaan Suvraga on our Mongolia winter tour Tsagaan Sar Insight trip. I texted both this morning - 

Sar shinedee saikhan shineleerei.

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