24 February 2017

What does Tsagaan Sar mean for Mongolian's?

Mongolian New Year - known as Tsagaan Sar is fast approaching. Here's my (brief you'll be pleased to hear) guide.

Most people will have heard of Chinese New Year. Not so many people know that Mongolian New Year is a completely separate celebration to that celebrated by the Chinese throughout the world. 
Tsagaan Sar (White Month) is Mongolia's Lunar New Year - celebrated on the second new moon after the winter solstice. It is a deeply traditional holiday bringing together family members and lasts a minimum of three days. The year of the Fire Monkey is currently finishing and the year of the Fire Chicken is beginning.

What does Tsagaan Sar mean for Mongolian's?

Prior To Tsagaan Sar

In brief, you clean!

I'm currently in Ulaanbaatar and the city is a hive of industry with families out doing something to prepare for Tsagaan Sar - from being at the Naran Tuul Black Market in Ulaanbaatar buying sweets and carpets to shovelling snow oe cleaning their homes. 

* We have also spent a lot of time in a traffic jam that is the whole of Ulaanbaatar in the run up to the festival. 

The preparation for Tsagaan Sar begins many weeks before the actual national holiday. Mongolians like to start off the new year with their ger, apartment, or house being very clean. Many families will take this time to redecorate by buying new flooring or rugs to hang on the walls. In addition to new household goods, families will buy new clothing as well.

Why clean?

Basically, you are cleaning out the previous year - both literally and metaphorically with old quarrels being reconciled and outstanding money paid back. Tsagaan Sar brings together family and friends – the problems between
each other are put behind them and you start over fresh – you do not bring previous problems forward into the New Year.

And here was today at the Naran Tuul - purchasing boots and a deel.

Bituun - New Year's Eve

In brief, prepare and then eat a lot of mutton dumplings.

Sunday February 26th is 'bituun' - meaning to close down. This is the last night of the current lunar year — when the moon is invisible and darkness is total. We would know it as New Year’s Eve.

Prior to Tsagaan Sar, Mongolian families make literally hundreds of buuz - Mongolian dumplings  (kept frozen until they are steamed for the guests - no need for a freezer when outside it is -30 at night!).  Tsagaan Sar is a time when Mongolians come together to show respect to the family elders and the number of buuz prepared is a way of showing respect to the eldest members of the family. 

On bituun people eat to be full - it is believed that if you stay hungry you will be hungry for the coming year.

Shiniin Negen - New Year's Day

In brief, honour the spirits and honour your family

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.

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. There are many traditions followed between families on this day such as passing the snuff bottle. The symbolism of the passing of the snuff bottle is new friendship and honouring friends and family. 

However, one of the most formal traditions is when family members honour their senior relatives in a greeting called 'zolgokh.' This is 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. This is all with the exception of the husband and wife as they are considered one person so they don’t need to be greeted by each other. 

The traditional greeting is 'Ta amar mend baina uu?’ which means ‘How are you doing?’  The answer back to the first greeting is ‘Amar mendee’ which means I am fine, I am good. Elders are given a ‘khadag’ (a Mongolian sacred scarf) as a sign of deep respect and are wished good health and long life.

The Tsagaan Sar Table

In brief, mutton!

Mongolians typically prepare three important dishes for Tsagaan Sar as well as the buuz mentioned above there is also boov and the whole back of a sheep.

The main one you can see in the photo is boov – a traditional Mongolian bread (basically biscuits made of flour).  The boov are stacked in layers which have to be an odd number – three, five, etc – as the odd numbers represent happiness. The older the family members, the higher the stack of boov to show respect (the number of levels indicates the status of the family, which is determined by the age of the parents and the number of their children). The boov is then decorated with aaruul (Mongolian dried cheese) and small sweets. 

Also on the table you will find  a whole back of a sheep including the fat of its tail (it's just off to the right in the photo). Mongolians try to cook a sheep with as big a tail as possible, wishing the family wealth and prosperity.  It is served on the table for the entirety of the holiday. 

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. You clear your mind and spirit of all negative things and open it up to pure clean positive thoughts.

We'll be in the middle Gobi in the rural community of Erdenedalai for Tsagaan Sar. For the Eternal landscapes team that won't be with me, I will be  wishing them all 'sar shinedee saikhan shineleerei'. I wish you all the same.

And remember, you could always join the Eternal Landscapes team as they celebrate Tsagaan Sar in 2018. How? By joining one of our Mongolian winter tours. Alternatively, just email me (jess@eternal-landscapes.co.uk) - I'm always happy to be of help and all advice is free with no sales pitch. 

And, unless I have mentioned otherwise, all images used throughout this post were taken either by EL guests or members of the EL team. This is the Mongolia you will also experience if you chose to travel with us.

Wherever the road takes you in 2017 - Sain Yavaarai - Journey Well