Tsagaan Sar or White Month is the Mongolian New Year. It has been celebrated for centuries with other Asian nations during the end of January, February or beginning of March, though it usually happens in February. Tsagaan Sar is one of the two main holidays celebrated by Mongolians, and so it needs lots of preparation.
Before celebrating Tsagaan Sar all Mongolians are involved in various types of preparation. No-one is left out of this. Young and old, male and female will spend equal time in different activities. Children help their parents to clean the ger (felt tent like a yurt: the word literally means “home”). Before Tsagaan Sar many eight to ten year old children would be seen on the ger wiping snow off. When I was little I used to wipe the snow off my grandparents’ ger, which was great fun for me. After reaching teenage I was not allowed to, because I could break the ger roof struts. There are plenty of other chores done by children such as bringing 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 gers and sew a new deel (full-length Mongolian national dress) 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, christened].
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 (steamed dumplings made of beef, onion and fat). Buuz are kept frozen until they are steamed for the guests. My family is used to making thousands of buuz because my grandparents were old and respected people, and expected many visitors. Boov – biscuits made of flour – is the second main dish to be on the table. The biscuits are about thirty centimetres long and four centimetres 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 members, the higher the stack of boov. During the summer months families would have already prepared many dairy products such as cheeses and hard curds (these are white foods, to match the White Month) which would decorate the stack of boov, interspersed with small sweets. Lastly, almost a whole sheep’s back, particularly with a big fatty tail – uuts – would be cooked for the Tsagaan Sar. Mongolians try to cook a sheep with as big a tail as possible, wishing the family wealth and prosperity. However, sheep with bigger tails cost more at this time, which somewhat contradicts the prosperity idea.
During Tsagaan Sar’s Eve, known as bituun, families spend the evening cooking dumplings. Before eating buuz and tasting uuts, Mongolians first offer them to the God, the sky, the land, and mountains. In a small family circle the celebration starts and they play special Tsagaan Sar games with sheep or goats’ knucklebones, and tell long tales and sing songs. Of course, nowadays citydwellers have a Playstation too.
–20C is no obstacle to celebrating Tsagaan Sar in Mongolia, the Country of Blue Sky. 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 a couple to make their first steps of the New Year according to their horoscope. To follow my traditions, or better to say my parents’ orders, I would walk (very embarrassed) with a piece of paper or a stone, to east or west depending on the coming year. After having lived abroad for a while I have managed to avoid this tradition.
The long celebration starts when younger people visit older ones to pay their respects. Usually children visit their parents first and then other older people. The younger ones greet their elders by putting their hands out, palms upward, under the latter’s forearms. In most cases, the people will also hold a hadag – a blue, yellow or white scarf used for greeting each other, sometimes given as a present to old people to show respect. Men wear their traditional pointed hats, women should wear hats or scarves during greetings. Mongolians treat their hats as an important part of the body. Hats are never seen on a floor or upside down: like the head, they should remain high.
Another greeting custom is that the people exchange their snuff bottles, offering them with open right hand while touching under the right elbow with the open left hand. Men have quite large bottles made of expensive stone, 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 the part-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. My (British) husband commented on whose tea tasted better after visiting my various relatives. The family steams buuz for the visitors, and guests try some meat and dairy products but nobody touches the 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 departing. According to Mongolian tradition, guests do not usually bring presents. As a little girl I visited many families to fill my bag with lots of sweets and presents. The sweets lasted me for a while and then I would trade them with other children or just give them away.
It is hard work for Mongolian women during Tsagaan Sar. Almost every woman in the household would be in the kitchen in a modern apartment or around the stove in a ger, making tea several times in a day and steaming dumplings for every visitor. They also take responsibility to not let anyone leave the ger without a present. Meanwhile, happy and slightly drunk Mongolian men are chatting and having drinks non-stop for three days.
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 the uuts and the stack of 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 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 buuz and boov. And you thought turkey sandwiches in January were bad?
When we moved abroad, my son still did not forget that important day of the year despite his new holidays (Christmas and Halloween). With only two of us living in a small city in the United States, with no one to visit or to be visited, he would suggest to me to make buuz for the Tsagaan Sar and I agreed. We managed to have two Mongolian Tsagaan Sar in the US.
The year of the horse is coming on 10 February. I am looking forward to making buuz (but not hundreds or thousands because I do not have many relatives in Lisbon) and celebrating Tsagaan Sar among my new friends whom I have made in Portugal.