Tsagaan Sar, the Mongolian New Year celebration, is an event with its own, unique traditions, customs and, of course, food. From the sitting position of the guests to the cake’s number of layers, every detail has its own cultural significance. And “as always, preparation is key”. In this article, Sophie Zwick gives us a glimpse of her time in Mongolia during that special time of the year and walks us through the correct order of the festivities.
Image 1. View onto Ulaanbaatar from Bogd Khaan mountain
As some countries have already welcomed the New Year of the Rabbit or Cat, preparations in Mongolia and surrounding communities are well underway. Known under different names, the three-day Цагаан сар or Tsagaan Sar (literal translation: White Moon) New Year celebration took place on February 21, 2023. The Mongolian Lunar New Year follows a different lunar calendar compared to the more prominent Lunar New Year celebrated in East and Southeast Asia. Nonetheless, this unique celebration has a historical resonance and has experienced a resurgence since its ban during the socialist period in the mid-20th century. It is a time for families to gather, celebrate the beginning of the new year, end quarrels, and enjoy Mongolia's culinary specialties. For instance, have you ever tried one of the many varieties of Ааруул (Aaruul), lost count of how many Бууз (Buuz) you ate, or sipped on Айраг (Airag)? If the answer is no, allow me to give you a glimpse of my personal experience in 2019 and shed light on a Lunar New Year celebration worth knowing!
Throughout history, the territory inhabited by Mongolians or precursor Mongolian tribes has undergone a major evolution from a transcontinental empire to its modern counterpart. Originally, the celebration served as a way for hunters to meet and share the meat of their game. According to the Mongolian National Commission for UNESCO, the celebration "later turned [into a] herders' feast involving dairy products" and was established as a state celebration in 1206, when Chinggis Khaan united the dispersed Mongol tribes to form the Mongolian Empire. (UNESCO, 2011).
Today, Mongolia is one of the least densely populated countries. The territory spans 1.5 million km² with a population of roughly only 3 million people. Half of the population lives in the capital Ulaanbaatar, and an estimated 145,311 herder households (or 285,691 people) continue to pursue a nomadic lifestyle, "where people have to be flexible and mobile following their livestock along the vast steppes in search of better pasture and water" (Yembuu, 2016). Even with the modern differences, Tsagaan Sar remains a time to celebrate a new beginning after surviving the harsh winter. It is a time to tie loose ends and embrace a new year. To do this, there are some rules for the evening before Tsagaan Sar.
Bituun - the dark moon
As always, preparation is key. To start the new year on a "happy note", families need to clean their house, give back what has been borrowed, own up to mistakes, and settle disputes. It is also crucial to stay home on the eve of the New Year to "properly bid farewell to the old year" (Bayarsaikhan, 221 C.E.). The eve before celebrating the white moon is called Битүүн (Bituun) or dark moon, as the moon cannot be seen on the 30th day of a lunar month.
In addition to this, families will prepare food and drinks well before the new year, with an article estimating that around two thousand buuz, steamed dumplings filled with meat, are made in advance (ibid). The family will also change into new clothes and offer some of their meal to the gods (Amarsaikhan, 2018).
Tsagaan Sar celebration
Seniority plays a guiding role and dictates the sequence of actions. It is customary to visit the oldest and most senior family members first. During my stay in Mongolia, I visited four different families, and we always followed the following procedure. When visiting, the oldest person usually enters the house first, with the youngest entering last. Similarly, seniority plays a role in the sequence of greetings. During Tsagaan Sar, the usual greeting "Hello" – Сайн байна уу (Sain baina uu), is replaced by the question “Aмар байна уу?” (amaar baina uu) "Are you living peacefully?". The gesture that goes along with this greeting is called золгох (zolgolt). The younger person will extend their arms as if holding an invisible tray. They will place their hands underneath the elder's elbows to show respect. While holding this stance, they also moved their head in a "kissing the cheek" motion from one side to the other. The meaning behind this gesture is said to be a transfer of energy, supporting the elder in the upcoming year.
One of the families I visited lived close to the Хустайн (Hustai) National Park. The family lived in a yurt, and as we stepped in, we made sure to move clockwise through the yurt. Guests would sit on the left side of the yurt while the hosts were seated opposite them on the right side. The oldest or more senior head of the home took a spot in the middle.
Image 2. Two Khuruug bottles on a piece of embroidered fabric.
As the hosts handed us drinks and food, the head of the family pulled out a colourful piece of cloth from underneath his деел (Deel). He unfolded the cloth and revealed a small flask-shaped Хөөрөг (Khuurug) bottle. He took it in the palms of his hand and handed it to the oldest guest first. One at a time, the other guests also received the bottle with their palm and sniffed at its cap. One time on the left, the other on the right side, and then they gave it back. The bottle contains snuff tobacco; if the guest wishes, they can also take some of the content out and sniff it. The male host and guest carried such a bottle, and when it came to exchanging their Khuurug, I watched as they carefully accepted them, ensuring that the object sat well in our palm and not on our fingertips.
Image 3. In the yurt, the hosts were displaying their uuts, ul boov tower filled with aruul, different types of candy, Milk tea (see white pot on the lower right corner) and Buuz (plate on the right of the Fanta bottle).
The dinner table will be filled with delicious dishes and traditional items. Every table will showcase an Ууз (uuts), a lamb/mutton's hide, and a fatty tail as the centrepiece. The bigger the tail, the better. In the past, this was a way for families to show off their riches and prove that their livestock was well-fed. The guests will then be offered a slice of the uuts. There is also a tower made up of Ул Боов (ul boov) cakes, which are horseshoe-shaped long pieces with an ornament or seal stamped onto them. Each level comprises five pieces stacked on top of each other. Even without counting, you will know that the number of levels will be odd, as an even number symbolises "sadness and distress". The number of layers is linked to the social status of the head of the family as well as the size and age of the household. Young families, for example, will have a three-layered tower (Mongolian News Montsame, 2018). The tower is filled with milk products and sweets. Milk products such as (Aaruul), which is dried curd milk, are the "symbolic representation in the festival to whiten and purify what's dark" (Mongolian News Montsame, 2018).
Image 4. It is customary for the guest to try a piece of the uuts. Here the host is cutting a piece for their guests.
Following this rule of odd numbers, guests should eat an odd number of buuz, steamed dumplings, and drink an odd number of drinks. Along with Airag, fermented mare's milk, guests will be offered a variety of alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks. A must-try is the salty, warm, and soothing сүүтэй цай (Suutai Tsai), Mongolian Milk tea. In comparison to the sweet Milk teas popular in East Asia, the Mongolian counterpart mixes salt, fresh milk, black or green tea, and in certain instances, butter and fat together. When receiving drinks and food, guests must accept it with their right hand and 'support' the motion by touching their right elbow with their left hand.
Traditionally, on Tsagaan Sar, guests and hosts will wear the Deel, a long traditional outer dress with a high collar (Yembuu, 2016). Tsagaan Sar is an occasion for which many will have a new Deel custom-made for them in bright and vibrant colours. While the Deel is designed to accommodate the lifestyle of herders, it has long established itself as a cultural clothing item and a part of Mongolian identity. Mongolian popstar UKA has expressed her appreciation for the clothing in her music video to the chart hit Маргаашийн Нар луу Хамт Аялах уу? (Margaashiin Nar Luu Hamt Ayalah Uu) (“Wanna travel to tomorrow's sun"). The singer styled the Deel with sunglasses and a cloth wrapped around her head.
The day I visited the families, I was wearing a mint green Deel with a dark green shimmering belt. As we drove home, past the vastness of the Mongolian steppes and towards the bustling city of Ulaanbaatar, I was filled with a sense of happiness, and physically full of all the food. Tsagaan Sar is one of the most anticipated celebrations during the year, along with the Naadam festival in summer. The celebration is a way to preserve practices and beliefs which go back over centuries. It is a festivity that appreciates the rich history of time mapping, nomadic lifestyles, and religious beliefs. Throughout the celebrations, I witnessed the famous Mongolian hospitality. My experiences on that day do not make me an expert, but I hope this article might inspire you to visit Mongolia during this lovely time and experience the rich tradition yourself.
Image 5. The author in the mint green Deel.
This article represents the views of contributors to STEAR's online digital publication and not those of STEAR, which takes no institutional positions.
Amarsaikhan, B. (2018, February 8). How Mongolians celebrate new year’s eve. MONTSAME News Agency. https://montsame.mn/en/read/123100
Bayarsaikhan, D. (221 C.E., February 11). Everything you need to know about Tsagaan Sar. The UB Post. http://theubposts.com/post/12125/
Mongolian News Montsame (Director). (2018, February 14). Significance behind Tsagaan Sar food. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n1bzgVTucVQ&t=3s
UNESCO. (2011). UNESCO - Evaluation of nominations for inscription in 2011 on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity (item 13 on the agenda). Nomination File No. 00573. 1–13. https://ich.unesco.org/en/13-representative-list-00411
Yembuu, B. (2016). Mongolian Nomads: Effects of Globalization and Social Change. In M. Robertson & P. K. E. Tsang (Eds.), Everyday Knowledge, Education and Sustainable Futures: Transdisciplinary Approaches in the Asia-Pacific Region. Springer. 89–105. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-10-0216-8_7