It’s Tsagaan Sar in Mongolia this weekend, also known as the White Moon festival, celebrating the Lunar New Year. Along with Naadam in the summer, Tsagaan Sar is one of Mongolia’s most important holidays and a time for families to celebrate together.
The holiday goes back to Mongolia’s earliest, shamanist and animist traditions and marks the end of winter and the beginning of the warmer weather. (I hesitate to describe the current weather as incipient spring, but the solstice has passed so technically winter is winding down.) Similar to new year celebrations in other cultures, this is a time when homes are cleaned, people wear new clothes and attitudes are positive, to set the right tone for good fortune in the coming year. In Mongolia, younger members of the family visit the elders, which is a lovely gesture of respect and also means that the duties of hospitality fall on the oldest people. Some of my colleagues live with elderly parents, and they’ve been making dumplings for the past two weeks.
The traditional food for Tsagaan Sar is, not surprisingly, meat and dairy, with brown food symbolising the old year and white food the new. In the old days everyone had sheep to butcher, and sheep haunch was the centerpiece of the family table. However, contemporary Mongolia is more urbanized, so sheep haunch is purchased — at highly inflated holiday prices. There actually have been editorials in the paper urging people not to go into debt just for the status of having a haunch on the table (and remember: these are the elders who host, so we’re talking about fixed-income retirees). The other traditional dishes are buuz, the mutton dumplings, and ul boov, a cookie that is stacked in circular rows, odd-numbered for good luck. At right is a photo of ul boov. The dumplings are made literally by the hundreds, as everyone who visits is given dumplings, milk tea and, likely, vodka and/or airag. The friendly, informal greeting this time of year is “Enjoy the buuz and the booze!”
You’re probably wondering about the other traditions of the holiday and wishing I’d explain a bit more. Which, as a new expat in Mongolia, I should do, having learned about the gifts, the greetings, the exchanging of snuff boxes by men. But we’re being bad expats this time: everything in UB is closed, and we had no particular invitations, so we took off for the bright lights and big city of Tokyo. No firsthand reports from me this year. (Nor are the photos by me: the horse is from Wikipedia, and the ul boov is from here.)
That said, there are two interesting things about the holiday that I’ve found out, both having to do with Mongolia’s idea of itself:
- In the socialist era, there was an effort made by the Soviets to change the holiday to “Collective Herder’s Day.” That didn’t take.
- I was informed, by several people, that Tsagaan Sar has NOTHING IN COMMON with Lunar New Year as celebrated by the Chinese. Completely different, oh, yes, completely different.