In Mongolia there are two major traditional holidays. One is in summer and is called Naadam, the other is in winter and is called Tsagaan Sar or white moon. Tsagaan Sar is the celebration of the Lunar New Year, following the same calendar as the Chinese New Year.
The photos of this special celebration can be found here: Tsagaan Sar 2015
Tsagaan Sar is a three day celebration but for many families the celebrations can take up to even ten days. The celebrations are part of the traditions being a nomadic people. During Tsagaan Sar people visit relatives and neighbors and in the countryside, this might be the only time of the year that you would see most of the family. You would be greeted with a special greeting congratulating each other with the year that has passed and wishing the best for the new year. The conversations during the day would mostly be about the year that has past and looking back.
Tseegi, a social worker of one of Susanne’s projects had invited us to celebrate Tsagaan Sar as part of their family. After picking us up in the city we were driven out to the ger district. Here we were visiting Tseegi’s 80 year old mother-in-law. She is a mother of twelve children. So when we were there many people were coming and going. It is tradition to greet the eldest with the arms outstretched and depending on age you would have your arms above or below the other person, always having the eldest on top. The Mongolians then also sniff each other as scent is very important. It is tradition to give money to the oldest person of the household during this first greeting (something we got wrong while doing it the first time, but we made up for it). Then after having greeted everybody the men would start exchanging snuff bottles and also sharing them with the women.
In this particular house we also had airag, the fermented mares milk which we hadn’t had before. It is definitely a peculiar taste! A plate would go round with sweets, curd and cheese and it is tradition to touch the bottom of the plate before taking something from the plate. We also received meat from the sheep that was the centerpiece of the room. Seabuckthorn juice and Mongolian salty milk tea were shared with us and off course the vodka was part of the celebration. We didn’t have to drink all the drinks, as long as we took a sip. We could then pass the bowl back before it was filled up again and shared with the next person always in age downwards. A very important part of Tsagaan Sar is the preparation and eating of Buuz, Mongolian dumplings. Apparently every family makes approx. 1000 to 2000 Buuz which they share during Tsagaan Sar. An amazing amount! During the whole celebration we were nervous and curious what was going to happen. All the traditions are very clear for the Mongolians but for us everything was new. We didn’t want to do anything wrong and really didn’t want to hurt hem because of our misinterpretations. Over all I think we did quite well 🙂 After about an hour we were handed small gifts and this was the sign that we soon would be on the move again. All of us jumped back in the car and we were headed for the second family.
The days of Tsagaan Sar are probably the days that are most dangerous on Mongolian roads. People drink and drive and there is a lot of traffic. We were stuck in an traffic jam driving out of the city. Martin had to be back in time to organize his Russian visa and we were driving further and further out of the city. Finally on the outskirts of the city we turned right into a small neighborhood with gers and houses. We entered the house and again we did the traditional greetings. We were at Tseegi’s 70 year old mother’s house. Here it was a bit more relaxed. Traditions were not so fixed and everybody felt a little bit more at ease. People were sharing stories and it was a nice family get together. In this house there was no mares milk but all the other traditions were apparent and here it was clearer that Buddhism was stronger because of the altar and paying the respects to the altar. Again after about an hour and a half we received presents and we were on the road again. Martin needed to head back for his visa, but Susanne stayed with the family.
Next stop was a ger where everybody relaxed, took it easy. The son of the family, our driver, had a sleep. Everybody was at ease, we were with a small group of people at one of the cousins and most took of there deels, the beautiful Mongolian coat. After a while people got moving again, so after vodka, sangria, Buuz and biscuits we got in the car again. After a final trip to the first mother-in-law again, Susanne was invited to stay the evening at Tseegi’s place.
It was very nice to see their house with traditional Mongolian carpets in the walls. It is a house with two rooms and a small kitchen. The parents sleep in the living room, the youngest two girls slept in their own room, which also was used as television and study room. The evening was spent chatting, playing traditional Mongolian ankle bone games with the girls and looking into photo albums with beautiful traditional Mongolian photos. Also they clothed Susanne in a traditional Mongolian deel and had a photoshoot with her 🙂 The son lived in a ger nearby and their eldest daughter lives in the countryside. Tseegi asked Susanne multiple times if she wanted to stay the night, but she wasn’t prepared and said it would be better to go home. So finally after having eaten more Buuz and drunk more Mongolian milk tea and even some vodka shared by the man of the house it was time to go. It was a really amazing day and Tsagaan Sar is definitely a celebration where all the Mongolian traditions come to life.
On a side note, Tsagaan Sar does give a lot of pressure in the Mongolian society. It is a little bit the same with Christmas back home. It is expected that people spend a lot of money and time preparing for Tsagaan Sar. Buying the sheep, making the Buuz, buying gifts etc. also people give a lot of money when visiting family. It is a big expense! We have been warned frequently that pickpockets are a bit more aggressive during this time of year because people need money. Luckily we haven’t had to experience it, but it is sad that these happy days will have a large effect on the financial position of quite a few families.
On the first day after Tsagaan Sar Susanne was at her other volunteering project at the peak sanctuary and here there was a special celebration as well with all the teachers. The same traditions took place with the greetings and the food. Although here everybody was singing. First one man by himself, then a group female teachers and eventually also some of the older people of the group. The Mongolian singers and songs are very special and definitely heartfelt! It had been a week of celebration and nice times for the Mongolians. And we hope they hold on to these traditions because they are very special!