Mongolian New Year or Tsagaan Sar is one of the most celebrated holiday among Mongolians. Tsagaan Sar means “White Moon” in Mongolian language and refers to the first day of the year, according to the Mongolian traditional lunisolar calendar when the new moon rises. Even the date changes every year, the Mongolian system of combining solar and lunar calendars keeps Tsagaan Sar always in the end of winter.
It should be noted that Tsagaan Sar occurs on the same day as the Tibetan Losar, but does not necessarily coincide with the Chinese New Year. Tsagaan Sar of this year falls under the sign of the Earth Pig and begin on 5th February, Tuesday.
Mongolian Tugs Buyant lunisolar calendar was developed by Mongolian high priest Luvsandanzanjantsan, who is the first reincarnation of the Lamiin Gegeen. It means Tsagaan Sar traditions are several centuries old and it deserves the full respect of Mongolians.
Tsagaan Sar is celebrated not only in Mongolia, but also among the ethnic Mongols of China in Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region and other regions, as well as Kalmyks, Buryats and Tuvans of Russia. The Buryats call the New Year as “Sagaalgan”, and the Tuvans call “Shagaa”.
During period of Mongolian Communist era, Tsagaan Sar was banned by the Government and replaced with a holiday called “Collective Herder’s Day”. But people were continued to celebrate Tsagaan Sar and honored old traditions in a secret way. The holiday was practiced again officially after the 1990 Democratic Revolution in Mongolia.
Tsagaan Sar is usually celebrated on the first through third days of the first lunar month. But some folks keep up the festivities for as long as two weeks. The festival actually begins in the evening before the New Year, which is called Bituun, the name of the lunar phase of a Dark Moon or No Moon Day.
On Bituun’s day, people put items such as barns and stables in their home and burn candles to symbolize Buddhist enlightenment of all sentient beings and put three pieces of ice at the doorway; so that the horse of the deity Baldan Lham could drink as the deity is believed to visit every household on this day. Also, any outstanding debts are expected to be settled before Bituun.
In the evening of Bituun, families gather together, usually immediate family members, in contrast to the large feast gatherings of Tsagaan Sar and to see out the old year while eating dairy products and traditional dumplings called buuz as much as possible in order to assure a rich year ahead.
On Bituun’s day, the national wrestling competition is broadcasted on television channels. Each family organizes traditional games with knucklebones because the luckiest person of that night is supposed to be lucky all year long.
In the morning of the New Year, the hostess offers the first cup of milk tea to gods by throwing it in all directions. After daybreak, people begins to greet each other with holiday-specific greetings such as “Amar baina uu?” meaning “Are you living peacefully?”
Everyone happens to wear their most beautiful deel – the traditional Mongolian dress. Then they have to go out in front of their house to perform the ritual prayers. These are published in the newspaper and are determined according to Mongolian zodiac.
Mongolians emphasize to the first day of Tsagaan Sar with great importance. Thus, Mongolians have a religious ritual called “Khimori sergeekh” to call good fortune. They also follow the ritual of “Ovoo” to thank gods and nature.
Many traditions are linked to the symbolism of Tsagaan Sar and have developed over time to help starting the new year under the best possible omens. The way the year commences is believed to shape how it will further develop over the coming twelve months.
A typical Mongolian family meets the eldest relative in the home dwelling. When greeting their elders during the White Moon festival, Mongols perform the “zolgokh” greeting by grasping their elbows to show support for them. The eldest sits at khoimor or opposite side of a door. When people greet, both extend their arms; palms turned up. Younger family members support the elders at the elbows from below.
During the greeting ceremony, family members hold a khadag, a long blue silk cloths. After the ceremony, the extended family eats mutton, rice with curds, dairy products, and buuz. It is also typical to drink airag (fermented mare milk) and vodka and to exchange gifts.
The traditional food in Mongolia for New Year festival includes dairy products, rice with curds (tsagaa) or rice with raisins (berees), a pyramid of traditional cookies (ul boov) erected on a large dish in a form of special fashion, symbolizing Mount Sumber or Shambhala realm. As well as, steamed sheep called uuts and minced beef or minced mutton are served.
Tsagaan Sar is a lavish feast, requiring preparation days in advance, as the men and women make large quantities of buuz for all family visitors along with ul boov. Families also prepare some elegant clothes for them to wear in advance. Nomads prepare their best horses in order to ride them during the festivities.
During the days of Tsagaan Sar and the following week, Mongolians visit their whole family relatives; by visiting tens of them in one day. But there is a special order to begin with the house of the eldest or to begin with their parents.
Each family visit is ritualized. When they arrive at their host’s, the latter is sitting in the Northern part of the ger, keeping his hat on his head. They come and greet him according to the “zolgokh” ritual: guests come one after the other near the householder. The guest, with a khadag on the arms, puts his forearm on those of his host, while uttering the phrase “Amar baina uu? Sar shinedee saikhan shinelj baina uu”, which means “Are you living peacefully? Are you celebrating New Year in a good way?”
Then the host kisses or sniffs guest on both cheeks, and the guest gives the host some amount of money (new notes to mark the renewal). Then the guests sit around the table and is served with milk tea and traditional dishes by hostess. While the men exchange their snuffbox, people generally discuss the course of the winter. When the guests are ready to leave after the main course, the host offers them gifts.
As “Tsagaan Sar” comes on the first new moon after the winter solstice, it is a symbol of the warmer days of spring just ahead.
It should be noted that the lunar calendar system of the Mongols consists of 12-year animal cycles annually. This is the Small Wheel of Time, which is five times included in the 60 year cycle – the Large Wheel of Time.
The annual calendar was divided into two seasons – warm and cold. The warm part includes the second half of spring and summer. The rest is considered as the cold season. The annual calendar is lunar.
12-year cycle begins with year of the Rat. Then successively follows year of the Ox, the Tiger, the Rabbit, the Dragon, the Snake, the Horse, the Goat, the Monkey, the Rooster, the Dog and the Pig.
The years are divided into hard (male) and soft (female) forms according to the characteristics of each animal. This calendar played a big role in the chronometry of life and ritual practices of the ethnic Mongols.
While the New Year of the Earth Pig was celebrated from the fifth to the seventh of February 2019, according to Mongolian Tugs Buyant lunisolar calendar, the next year of the Iron Rat will be celebrated from the 25th to the 27th of January, 2020.