Welcome to the Year of the Blue Sheep!
Last month Mongolia celebrated Tsagaan Sar or White Month (also sometimes translated as White Moon), which marks the beginning of the Lunar New Year and Spring! At first I was skeptical that spring was finally coming. Yes, it continues to snow, but the weather is interspersed with 40-degree days of sun and the air has that certain smell promising the season of renewal.
Tsagaan Sar is one of the biggest holidays in Mongolia and usually takes place in February. This year it began on Thursday, February 19th. Visiting and celebrating typically goes on for 2 weeks to a month. One of my English teachers told me that the most important days are the first 15 days, during which you must start the year correctly by visiting family and friends, cleaning your home, buying new things, getting rid of the old, and purifying your life for the year to come by meeting with a Buddhist monk to hear his recommendations for your year.
Tsagaan Sar is all about visiting people’s homes: family, friends, colleagues, former teachers, elders, and more. This year I celebrated by returning to my host family in Javkhlant for the first couple days, the more important time reserved for visiting friends and family. On the first morning of Tsagaan Sar, the family greets the rising sun, preferably on a hill or mountain where you can see the first light of the new year. Then you go to visit your eldest family members, such as parents or grandparents, in their home.
I traveled with some of my training site mates from the summer to Javkhlant and we arrived to a frigid and snowy, but still beautiful, soum surrounded by fields and mountains. My family was in the countryside greeting my host father’s parents, so I waited with another host family in their grandparents’ ger. We entered in the traditional way, moving clockwise and greeting the eldest, first the grandfather then grandmother, by placing our arms beneath theirs in the customary greeting. Then we sat down to admire the cooked sheep’s back which sits out for the first few days of the holiday and is occasionally nibbled at by family members. We were served buuz (steamed dumplings) and I remembered many of my Mongolian colleagues and friends telling me that they made 1,800, 2,000, 2,500 buuz to prepare for holiday visitors. A typical Mongolian family will have over 200 visitors come to their home during the month of Tsagaan Sar, so they must always be prepared with hot buuz!
It was wonderful seeing my family again, especially dressed in their beautiful deels that my host mother sewed for all of them! Anu-Ujin is now toddling around and understands when she’s told to stand up, come here, stop doing that, etc.! It was encouraging to see how much more Mongolian I understand than when I first met my host family back in June, and I was able to talk a lot more with them and tell them about life in Erdenet. We feasted at home and enjoyed sharing presents. Afterwards, I visited a few other host families’ homes as well as both of my Mongolian language teachers from the summer, Baagii and Baigalaa. Overall it was a lovely homecoming and I look forward to taking my parents and sister to Javkhlant when they come to Mongolia this summer!
The Dos and Don’ts of Tsagaan Sar,
according to personal experience and the UB Post (Mongolia’s English Newspaper)
DO visit your elders. The focus of Tsagaan Sar is to honor your elder family members and bring them money and gifts, especially if you don’t see them much throughout the year.
DO serve white food: potato salad, sweet rice with raisins, ul boov (large biscuit-cookies), cream, aaruul (sweet and sour fermented cheese), airag (fermented mare’s milk), milk tea and other dairy products, buuz, and candy.
DO give presents to visitors and bring presents to homes you visit. Typical presents can range from money, beauty products, and imported candy to a dish set, a pair of pants, or a care package of buuz. I need to step up my game for gift-giving next year, I was sorely underprepared this year for the generosity I experienced when visiting homes.
DON’T mend old clothing during Tsagaan Sar. If it’s possible, “one should make new clothing. This is an omen of good fortune and longevity.” My teachers told me that many people try to buy or sew new deels for the holiday and coming year.
DON’T kill an animal during the holiday. Make sure you slaughter your sheep or goat or cow to make all those buuz before the new year! “Killing [animals] will only bring bereavement or misfortune.”
DON’T greet your husband or wife “because Mongolians believe that a couple’s body and mind is united as one.” Fun fact: pregnant women also can’t greet each other because of the possibility that the sex of the babies could be switched if they do….
And there you have it, the beautiful and interesting traditions of Tsagaan Sar, Mongolia’s biggest holiday!
Next week, some 50-degree days are in the forecast and I can hardly contain myself. We also have Spring Break and I’ll go to UB to apply for my Chinese visa. My family is coming to Mongolia in June and I’ll show them a bit of Mongolia for a week, then we’ll embark on a 2 week tour around China!
To conclude, I’ll just leave this here…