Saturday, March 8, 2014

Tsagaan Sar: it's the most wonderful time of the year!

This post is long overdue, as Tsagaan Sar ended over a month ago and we're well into the Year of the Wooden Horse by now.  But as I prepared this post, I realized that I had a lot to say about Tsagaan Sar, and that almost everything I wanted to mention required more rumination in order to provide a coherent explanation.  With that in mind, better late than never!


Literally translating into 'White Moon' (although the Mongolian word for 'moon' is the same as the word for 'month'), Tsagaan Sar/Цагаан Сар is the Mongolian Lunar New Year festival.  Tsagaan Sar is one of the two most significant and widely-celebrated holidays in Mongolia, along with Naadam/Наадам in mid-July.

I feel extremely lucky to have been in Mongolian for Tsagaan Sar and to have been invited into the homes of so many wonderful people.  The entire city of Ulaanbaatar changed for Tsagaan Sar.  After a long, slow build up of 'holiday spirit' that started before the Western New Year began, Tsagaan Sar felt like a burst of warm and fuzzy collective effervescence across a frozen, glittering city.

Tsagaan Sar is a party holiday, a gift-giving holiday, an eating holiday, and a drinking holiday.  It feels more family-oriented than Naadam; moreover, the focus is on honoring and celebrating those whom you value and respect.  Put another way, I have at no other time been so aware of the extent to which familial and social relationships are hierarchical in Mongolia.  This may sound like a negative thing to a Western audience, but these relationships as celebrated during Tsagaan Sar were warm, comforting, and positive as I experienced them.  The appreciation and honoring is mutual; respect and acknowledgement flows from juniors to seniors, and generosity and blessings flow from seniors to juniors.

There are a number of ways to talk about Tsagaan Sar or to explain it to an audience unfamiliar with the holiday.  In this post I am going to discuss my experiences of the 2014 Tsagaan Sar through a mixture of temporal organization of the holiday and its key or most notable aspects.  This post is certainly not meant to be any kind of definitive statement on or study of Tsagaan Sar.  Rather, by sharing my experiences of Tsagaan Sar in 2014, I hope to convey some of the sensations, sentiments, and sensibilities that I feel are part of Tsagaan Sar as a family holiday, a spiritual and cosmological event, and a cultural phenomenon in Mongolia.


This year Tsagaan Sar 'Eve' (битүүн өдөр/bituun udur) fell on January 30th.  However, Tsagaan Sar season, rather like the American ramp-up of shopping in anticipation of Christmas, began weeks before that with the myriad of preparations that Mongolian families undertake as Tsagaan Sar draws near.

In the days leading up to Tsagaan Sar, the citizens of UB shopped 'til they dropped.  The bakery in my courtyard had a line outside its door, winding through the courtyard, all day for two days in a row just before Tsagaan Sar began.  Some last-minute shopping at the State Department Store gave me flashbacks to Macy's in Herald Square during the week before Christmas.  What I didn't get to witness firsthand but heard many accounts of was the preparation that takes place in each household planning to host (or help another household host) visitors during Tsagaan Sar.  People were literally buying out the stores, which was just as well, because almost everything is closed for most of Tsagaan Sar.  Since the exact length of Tsagaan Sar isn't quite fixed, this makes planning ahead difficult, especially since it wasn't at all clear which stores and restaurants would be open on which days during Tsagaan Sar (if they were open at all).  The best plan was to stock up and plan to eat a lot during Tsagaan Sar visits.  Let's just say that I didn't find it to be a problem.

I'll discuss buuz (бууз) more in the 'Food and Drink' section, but keep in mind that buuz are key for Tsagaan Sar.  Buuz are mutton dumplings in hand-pinched flour dough steamed and served as one of the primary culinary delights of Tsagaan Sar.  Buuz production before Tsagaan Sar is mind-boggling: individual families make thousands of individual buuz by hand and freeze them outside (often on the roof of their ger) in order to feed everyone who visits over the course of the holiday season.  Home-made buuz are spectacularly delicious.  Unsurprisingly, each family seems to have a slight different recipe, but I'd be hard-pressed to pick my favorite from amongst the families I visited during Tsagaan Sar.  Whenever a non-Mongolian tells you that they don't like buuz, you should assume that they've only had fast-food or restaurant buuz.  Home-made buuz is on an entirely different level!

As I mentioned above and as I'll discuss in more detail below, gift-giving is a major component of the Tsagaan Sar celebrations.  Every adult gives and receives gifts, and of course children receive gifts as well.  This means that in the weeks leading up to Tsagaan Sar, everyone and their uncle is buying out the stores in anticipation of gift exchange, hence the shopping until dropping.  On the subjects of gifts and gift-giving during Tsagaan Sar, I'll speak only from my personal experiences.  Every visitor to a family household (айл/ail) during Tsagaan Sar receives a gift at some point during the visit.  This practice gets very expensive for the household.  For example, if you are a household hosting visitors during Tsagaan Sar, imagine that you receive 5-8 visits each day for at least three days, and each visit brings multiple visitors (like a whole family!).  Each and every visitor will get a gift.  That adds up quickly!

Furthermore, because a household hosting Tsagaan Sar visitors must also prepare a tremendous amount of food and drink (more on that below) as part of the holiday celebrations, things get even more expensive.  Not every Mongolian household will 'host' during Tsagaan Sar, as "young people" - who can even include adult married couples with children - do not usually host their own celebrations.  Younger or junior people visit their elders and seniors during Tsagaan Sar, and the hosts view each visit as a show of respect and appreciation.  

I've heard that the kinds of Tsagaan Sar gifts given and received depend on the economic status and class of the family in question, which makes sense.  In my experience, gifts given to visitors were beautiful and thoughtful.  Visitors are of course expected to bring gifts for the hosts.  This means that everyone is stocking up on gifts, whether they plan to host during Tsagaan Sar or not.  But I came to learn that not everyone gives gifts on every day of Tsagaan Sar and that whatever general principles I'd been kindly taught about Tsagaan Sar were more guidelines than actual rules (thank you, Pirates of the Caribbean).

This year Tsagaan Sar ran from January 30th to some time in early February, beginning spectacularly for me with Битүүн өдөр on January 30th.

Битүүн өдөр (Bituun udur) is basically Christmas Eve to Tsagaan Sar's Christmas: it's part of the holiday and observed through a variety of practices and events, but it's not technically 'during' Tsagaan Sar.  'Tsagaan Sar Eve' is not an inappropriate turn-of-phrase.  Битүүн means both 'full' and 'dark' in Mongolian.  It's considered the darkest night of the year as well as the time to get full (i.e., the time to stuff your face).  Becoming extra full on Bituun ensures that your life will be full of good things in the coming year.  I had the singular good fortune to be invited by my buddy, Erka, to celebrate Битүүн with him at his parents' home.  It was my first opportunity to wear the new winter deel I bought at Misheel Expo with the help of my friend, Muugii.  It turned out that only a few people besides me were wearing deel that night: Erka, Erka's sons, Erka's parents, and a few nieces and cousins.

A quick word on the Mongolian deel: there is a deel for everyone and for every occasion.  There are formal or dress deels, there are everyday deels, all deels are seasonal (the difference is usually the weight of the fabric, the number of layers, and the kind of lining), and men's deels are different than women's deels.  Moreover, there are different styles of deels in terms of cut, particularly the collar and sleeve.  A true deel must be worn with some kind of belt and is usually worn with a hat.  The style of a deel also varies with the age of its wearer.  Defying my unfounded notion that all Mongolians own dress deels to wear for formal occasions, many young Mongolians do not own a deel.  A number of people I spoke to mentioned the cost associated with buying a dress deel.  Dress deels are often made of silk or cashmere, making them quite expensive.  Others raised the issue of their suitability to wear a deel, in that a formal dress deel is something that an older person has earned the right to do.  However, almost every child under the age of 10 I saw during Tsagaan Sar was wearing a dress deel.  
Naraa (Naranbulag - 'Sunny spring') and Naraa (Narantsetseg - 'Sunflower', my Mongolian name) illustrating my point that many young Mongolians don't wear a deel for Tsagaan Sar.  Although giant cheeky foreigners obviously feel free to do so!

Much to my surprise, Bituun isn't an occasion where people give gifts (unlike the rest of Tsagaan Sar), but I didn't know this when I showed up on January 30th.  Despite my faux-pas, Erka's father was gracious enough to receive my gift and present me with one in return.

Proper greetings:
Although I was clearly wrong about giving gifts on Bituun, I was right to bring a blue khadak (хадаг) in order to perform the proper Tsagaan Sar greeting with Erka and his parents.  This greeting is called золгох (zolgokh), as seen in this picture:
Zolgokh.  Source:
Key things in this picture: both of the women are wearing hats, the younger woman has her arms under the older woman's arms (to support the elder/senior), a khadak is involved (the shiny bright blue cloth), the khadaks are held in palms-up hands overlain by the thumb (look at the young woman's right hand), and the older woman is kissing the younger woman's cheeks.  Sometimes the kissing of the junior's cheeks is replaced with sniffing - I keep forgetting to ask what that's all about - and sometimes only one of the two people performing zolgokh has a khadak.

Returning to the theme of the hierarchical nature of familial and social relationships in Mongolia, the zolgokh really drives that point home.  The zolgokh only takes place between two people, rather than in groups, as seen in the picture above.  How you perform the zolgokh depends on who the other person performing the zolgokh is in relation to you.  Are they older or younger than you?  Are they in a position of authority over you?  In a given zolgokh 'pair', the one 'above' (elder, senior) put their arms on top of the 'below' (younger, junior) person's arms.  The exceptions are friends around your age (you split the difference, with one arm 'above' and one arm 'below'), married couples, and pregnant women. 

People also exchange snuff bottles during Tsagaan Sar greetings, especially older people and men.  Many Mongolians have their own personal snuff bottles, and it's a marker of status within your social world to own a snuff bottle.  You may be offered a snuff bottle after the zolgokh even if you don't have your own to offer in exchange, as was the case for me.  I had more snuff in a matter of days than I'd had over the whole course of my life, which isn't saying much, as I'd never had snuff before 2014.

Verbal greetings accompany the zolgokh, as well as particular times during Tsagaan Sar: upon arrival at a household for a Tsagaan Sar visit, at the end of a visit, and the first time you see someone after the end of Tsagaan Sar.   While some Mongolians, particularly from younger generations, have told me that much of the formality around Tsagaan Sar is excessive, I found that the Mongolians I visited during Tsagaan Sar all used these formal greetings and that I was glad to generally be able to keep up.

After greeting Erka's father and mother with the zolgokh, it was time to sit down, enjoy some delicious food and drink, and accept their generous offers of snuff from their snuff bottles.   
Seated by the Битүүн spread next to Erka's mother and Erka in their dress deels (дээл).  Notice that all three of us have different sleeve styles and that I have a different collar (called the Hunnu zakh, or Hunnu/Xiongnu collar).

Erka's mother and father are both devout Buddhists.  His father is an active monk at Gandan Temple, the largest Buddhist monastery and temple complex in Ulaanbaatar, and a graduate of the university affiliated with Gandan Temple.  He had to leave early in order to join the other monks at Gandan for the all-night services, which is why he is not in this picture.  The rest of the family isn't in the picture because no other adults were wearing deels and all of the kids were racing around having fun.

Erka's mother founded the Mongolian Women's Buddhist Association immediately after the 1990 revolution.  She and her friends had secretly practiced Buddhism all through the communist/socialist era, when religion and religious observance was strictly forbidden, and outlasted this persecution to formally organize into their own association and build their own temple.  Erka's family also has a precious heirloom handed down through the Buddhist clergy in Mongolia.  In the picture above, there is a small white bowl on the left edge of the picture right next to a bottle of cognac.  That bowl dates from the 18th century (Manchu/Qing period) and was given to Erka's father by his mentor/master.  I unfortunately do not have a close-up of this beautiful heirloom, but the craftsmanship is exquisite and the painted detail is gorgeous.

While Erka's father participated in the all-night services and chanting at Gandan and Erka's mother left for all-night services at her temple, Erka and I met up with Muugii at Gandan temple complex around 10pm to participate in services ourselves.  We began by lighting a floating paper lantern - which takes some skill, let me tell you! - and releasing it up into the night sky along with dozens of other people just outside Gandan temple.  Each lantern slowly and surely floated up into the starry black night, joining into a long, winding trail of golden lights that slowly disappeared into the stars themselves.  Lighting a lantern and sending it up into the heavens is a way to send one's prayers, hopes, and wishes for the new year, for one's self, and for one's loved ones directly to heaven.  Lighting the tallow candle, gently coaxing the lantern to fill with hot air, exuberantly releasing it up into the sky, shouting with excitement as it cleared the rooftops, and falling silent as it found its place amongst the other heaven-bound wishes was one of the most moving things I've ever experienced.  Unfortunately it was too cold for my camera and I don't have any pictures of that spectacular sight!  However, taking pictures inside Gandan temple itself during such a holy night would have been incredibly disrespectful, if not forbidden.

Шиний нэгэн өдөр (Shinii negen udur) is the first official day of Tsagaan Sar and this year fell on Friday, January 31st.  I have heard slightly different accounts of how one celebrates Shinii negen, but it's clearly a day for visiting (or being visited by) family.  In my experience, Shinii negen is the day that people visit the eldest person in their family.  My dear friend Muugii (on my right in the picture above) was kind enough to invite me to her grandfather's house on Shinii negen.

Shinii negen udur with Muugii and her family.  There were a lot more people at the celebration but only the six of us could comfortably sit together for a photo.  Muugii, her mother, and her daughter, Indra, had a lovely color scheme going on.

Food and drink:
The pictures in this post give some visuals to go along with descriptions, but both fall short of the actual culinary, alimentary experiences of Tsagaan Sar.  There appears to be variation in what people serve during Tsagaan Sar and how it is served, based both on region of origin, ethnicity, and family preference.  In general, the staple foods of Tsagaan Sar are buuz (discussed above), the idee, the uuts (the middle and rear portions of a sheep with the fatty tail still attached), and cold salads (such as potato salad, cabbage salad that's something like fast-pickled coleslaw, and green salad).  The key drinks are suutei tsai (milky tea), airag, and hard alcohol (usually vodka, but sometimes brandy or cognac).  The idee (идээ) is in many ways the classic Tsagaan Sar centerpiece: an impressive Jenga-like stacking of long rectangular cookies filled with 'white foods', including rice, sugar cubs, and various dairy products.  The idee must have an odd number of layers; the alternating layers need to end in a 'good' (odd-numbered) layer.  The height of an idee depends on the type of household doing the hosting: younger families might have a 3- or 5-layer idee, while more established senior hosts would have a 7-layer idee.  The eldest person of a large extended family, like Muugii's grandfather or Erka's father, often has a 9-layer idee.

The Tsagaan Sar spread at Muugii's grandfather's home on Shinii negen from front to back, left to right. 1st row: airag in rare and expensive bowls carved from tree roots (brown, left), cold salads.  2nd row: shot glass for vodka or other hard liquor, large porcelain container holding airag, bowl of dried dairy products (aruul).  3rd row: sweet rice with raisins, more cold salads. 4th row: stack of pure-silver bowls for serving suutei tsai (milky tea), fruit, home-made sweets, more shot glasses.  5th row: bowls of cold salads or sweets.  6th row: the uuts (the torso and rear portion of a sheep with the fatty tail still attached), more sweets, more alcohol.  Back row: the idee.  The family shrine can be seen in the background.  They're refilling the buuz platter in the kitchen, which is why the buuz are missing.

There is a general order to the courses of food and drink served during a Tsagaan Sar visit.  The most important thing for everyone to do is to touch the outside base of each vessel of food or drink with the tips of one's right fingers before consuming or touching any food or drink.  The first food and drink that one is offered after the zolgokh is white: suutei tsai, dried dairy products, sweetened rice with raisins, or white-colored home-made sweets.  My understanding is that white food is associated with the purity of the new moon and with the renewal that comes with the new year.

Following the first samplings of white food, a guest is offered all of the cold salads, and there are usually several varieties to sample: potato salad, green salad, mixed cold cuts and sliced cucumber, and so forth.  It is important to have some of everything during Tsagaan Sar.  Airag, fermented mare's milk, usually accompanies this course.  At some point the vodka (and/or cognac and/or brandy) shots start getting handed out.  Then comes the endless platters of buuz, which your kind hosts will strenuously encourage you to eat as many of as humanly possible.  In between buuz and shots, the head of the household (or eldest male, if the head of household is a woman) will carve the uuts (the torso and rear portion of a sheep with the fatty tail still attached) and pass out slices to everyone in order of precedence.  Different families will include other side dishes but this is a pretty standard Tsagaan Sar menu.

It is important to keep in mind that a guest will be offered new food and drink long before finishing whatever they have on their plate or in their bowl.  On Shinii negen, I spent most of the celebration balancing a small plate (with a bit of everything on it) on my knees, a shotglass in one hand, an airag bowl in the other, and sipping from my cup of suutei tsai waiting for me on the table along with a plate of buuz.

One of my hosts was kind enough to allow me to try my hand at carving the uuts.  That large beige-white thing on the left is the sheep's fatty tail.  The idee in the background is a different style than the idees at Erka's parents' and Muugii's grandfather's homes, because this family hails from Western Mongolia.  The cookies making up each tier are not solid blocks but rectangular-shaped coils of cookie 'rope', making it much easier to actually snack on the idee rather than just admire it.


Happy birthday to me!  Photo credit: Vanessa T.

This year Шиний хоёрон өдөр/Shinii khoyoron udur fell on my birthday (February 1st) and gave me a chance to take a little break from the Tsagaan Sar whirlwind.  My lovely Fulbright family joined me for a modest stay-at-home celebration, complete with the most amazing birthday cake candle I have ever seen!  A blossoming lotus that played the birthday song and literally dwarfed that slice of cake.


Badamkhatan egch, Narangerel (Nargaa), and me. The home-made buuz are right in front of me.  That is not a coincidence.
On Shinii gurvan I outdid myself and visited two households in one day.  In the morning, my friend Naraa took me to visit her delightful aunt, Badamkhatan, where we were later joined by her brother, Nargaa, and his wife and daughter.  In the photo above you can get a greater sense of the variety of Mongolian deels.  Badamkhatan and I are both wearing cashmere deels, which are incredibly warm and soft, while Nargaa and I are both sporting the Hunnu zakh (meaning 'Hunnu/Xiongnu collar').  The Hunnu zakh is diagonal while the traditional collar of a Mongolian deel is a right angle, as seen on Badamkhatan egch's deel.

The Hunnu zakh is a new style for Mongolian deel inspired by the great Hunnu Empire.  Since that's the time period I focus upon in my research, it seemed only fitting that my winter dress deel have the Hunnu zakh.  I have also seen this kind of collar in an imperial portrait of Khubilai Khaan as well.  Nargaa's deel is his wedding suit and the embroidery of the shoulders and chest marks it as the fanciest deel a young man can wear.  This kind of embroidery also appears to be a recent trend, as I saw it on the costumes of a number of male folk singers, musicians, and opera singers here in Ulaanbaatar this winter.

Gift exchange is a huge component of Tsagaan Sar observance.  Visitors present gifts to their hosts and hosts present gifts to their visitors.  During the zolgokh, the visitor presents a folded khadak containing money to the head of the household, often along with a gift.  The amount of money varies, but it is always a new, single bill.  Wealthy people give 20,000 tugrik (about $12), middle class people give 10,000 tugrik, and less-well-off or young people give 5,000 tugrik (or so I've been told).  It is very important to fold the bill correctly into the khadak and hand the folded khadak to your host with the 'open fold' on top and facing them.  This represents openness and generosity.

I received fantastic gifts from my generous Tsagaan Sar hosts.  For example, here is the gift I received on Shinii negen udur, the first day of Tsagaan Sar, from my dear friend Muugii and her family:

Shagai fortune-telling set  in an embroidered felt container.  Shagai are sheep/goat anklebones.  Each shagai roll/position shown.  Starting from top left (clockwise): sheep (хонь), horse (морь), camel (тэмээ), and goat (ямаа).

Each side of the container has one of the four rolls of a shagai inset into it.  The lid has 'horse', the luckiest of the four sides, and 'sheep', 'goat', and 'camel' adorn the sides.  The set also came with a handy sheet that provides the interpretation (aka fortune) of each possible roll of four shagai.  The container came in a cute felt backpack:

Badamkhatan egch presented me with a splendid copper bowl filled with ezgii, a fried dairy product, at her home on Shinii gurvan udur.  Ever since Shinii gurvan, I've been drinking out of this bowl every morning (for health reasons, see below).

Badamkhatan egch filled her gift to me with ezgii because I said I liked ezgii; however, she would have filled the bowl with something before giving it to me  no matter what.  In Mongolia, when giving someone a food or drink container as a gift, that container is always filled with something - never empty.  Even when I've brought food to share in a container that happens to be in a bowl or tupperware container, it invariably gets filled with candy or home-made treats by the recipients before they return the container to me.  Such a seemingly minor practice illustrates the importance of generosity, reciprocity, and gift-giving in Mongolian culture.

My wonderful Mongolian language teacher here in UB, Tsermaa bagsh ('bagsh' means teacher or professor), also invited me to visit her family's home.  Unfortunately, although I brought my camera along, I forgot to take any pictures at Tsermaa bagsh's home, so you'll just have to use your imagination.  Tsermaa bagsh is Buryat, unlike all of the other Khalkh Mongol households that I visited for Tsagaan Sar.  The Khalkh are the ethnic majority in Mongolia and it is Khalkh Mongolian that is the country's official language.  Today the Buryat people live in eastern Mongolia and Buryatia, a Russian republic that borders the north of Mongolia and runs east along Lake Baikal.  Tsermaa bagsh has told me a little about the oppression of the Buryat people in Mongolia during the Communist era, including the suppression of their language and culture, but it's a subject I know little about.

During Tsagaan Sar, Tsermaa bagsh's Buryat identity manifested itself in how she and her family celebrate the holiday.  When I arrived at her home on Shinii gurvan, Tsermaa bagsh was not wearing a deel.  She explained that Buryat people do not wear Mongol-style deels, even on Tsagaan Sar.  After we performed the zolgokh, she served a series of courses similar to the standard Tsagaan Sar menu I described above.  The biggest departure was the absence of the uuts.  Accordingly to Tsermaa bagsh, Buryat people do not usually eat sheep meat during Tsagaan Sar, preferring to eat horse, beef, and wild boar.  Thus, our primary protein was cold-cuts of horse and beef; her family in the countryside was not able to send her boar meat this year, otherwise we'd have had that as well.

At the end of the visit, Tsermaa bagsh gifted me a beautiful engraved copper bracelet.  Well aware of my health problems, she had recommended a copper bracelet to me before deciding that that would be her Tsagaan Sar gift to me (and letting me know so that I didn't go out and buy my own).  I'll discuss the medicinal aspects and health benefits of copper in Mongolian traditional medicine in a later post using this bracelet and my copper cup.  Purely on its aesthetic merits, it's a marvelous bracelet.

Tsagaan Sar 2014 was a truly wonderful, memorable, and joyous experience for me.  I feel so blessed to have been here in Ulaanbaatar with such wonderful people to celebrate the holiday with them in their homes.  It was the best possible way to welcome in the Year of the Wooden Horse!

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