Intangible Cultural Heritage of Asia and the Pacific

The head of the family or a senior person carves the mutton and distributes it to everybody ⓒ FPNCH

Tsagaan Sar: Lunar New Year Festival

Lunar month festival of the Mongols or holiday celebration of the first day of “White Moon” or “White Month” symbolizes the departure of winter and welcoming the spring of the new year. This festival and its rituals and traditions are unique and naturally accorded with a specific lifestyle of Mongolian nomadic culture. Therefore, during this festival, there are no gatherings of masses on the street to participate in folk parades and street carnivals as in urban cities and villages.

According to historical chronicles and research of specialists, Mongols celebrated the Lunar Moon festival since ancient times. The celebration comes from a time (third century BCE to first century CE) when our ancestors of the Huns Empire—the First Empire of nomads of the steppes created a lunar calendar. According to the Secret History of the Mongols, Chingis Khan (1162–1227) on the first day of the lunar new year, wore new clothes, paid respect to heaven and earth, bowed and greeted his mother Oulun, and took part in a ceremony in his palace.

Since that ancient time, the White Moon festival and its associated rituals and rites deeply penetrated ordinary Mongol life and practices. This is one of the main nationwide annual events, next to the national Naadam celebration. This festival is usually celebrated on the first through third days of the first lunar month of the coming year.

Mongolian herders riding horses to visit
relatives who live far away © FPNCH

People start preparing for White Moon festivals several weeks ahead. They prepare plenty of food for their relatives, neighbors, friends, and their children who visit the family. For example, every family prepares hundreds of big dumplings called buuz and makes traditional special cookies kheviin boov for the new year celebration. They try to have enough gifts for every guest, especially for children. Women make new traditional dresses deel for each family member. Men of families catch their best horses and decorate them because they will ride them to visit relatives and friends, who live far away.

The day before the first day of White Month is called Bituun (to close down) which means the final (closed) day of the current year. This day is also named as “no moon day” or “dark moon” because the moon does not appear in the sky. The next day, in the sky, appears new crescent moon which is named “Light Moon” or “White Moon.” Therefore, people have to welcome the first day with “Light Moon” of the new year with a celebration, good wishes, and fresh and clean. In addition to it, the word white symbolizes the milk and purity of human intent and soul as white milk.

In such senses, a day of “Bituun” closes up “no moon or dark day” and the door preventing bad things from passing to the new white (light) day of the coming year. Due to this tradition people pay their debts and try to genuinely reconcile if they had problems with someone. Therefore, on Bituun day people thoroughly clean around ger (traditional home), and herders also clean the livestock barns and shades to meet the new year fresh. Putting wormwood on the doorway is to chase away all negative things.

Everybody, especially children welcome the New Lunar Year in new deels (traditional dresses) (c) FPNCH

Families put a feast of sheep rump, tiers of traditional cookies that are erected on large plates by odd numbers and decorated with candies and dairy products, airag (fermented mare’s milk), rice cooked with curd, steamed dumplings, and much more. In front of the altar of family lamps of oil, incense is burned and small prayer wheels are turned to symbolize enlightenment. When it gets dark, people sit together around the table and feast all evening to make wassail. The neighbors, relatives also visit each other if they wish. After that family members listen to interesting stories or play various traditional anklebone and table games.

On the first day of the White Month, people wake up before sunrise and get dressed in their new or nicest national clothes. They go outside, walk, and return by the way prescribed in a book of astrology that means their right life path and destiny in the new year. Then men go to the nearest hill or mountain to watch the first sunrise of the New Year and make offerings to the sacred site of Ovoo. Women make milk tea at home and perform tea libation rituals to honor the earth, heaven, and god wishing the best to their family.

Thereafter they visit their parents, grandparents, or elder relatives and perform a special greeting ritual called zolgolt. All people defer to the most senior person, but the precedence of age is significant. According to the sequence of age, they stretch out their both arms with open palms while holding an honorary blue scarf khadag under the arms of senior person to prop up his or her elbows. The elder kisses or sniffs both cheeks of the younger ones. Each visit must start with zolgolt to the eldest one in the house and in order of age.

Afterward, guests take a seat and exchange snuff boxes of a masterpiece, in which tobacco is powdered, asking each other, “How was your overall health last year?”. If you are visiting herder family, it sounds pleasant to ask, “Did you pass the winter successfully without loss of livestock?”. Meanwhile, the guests served with milk tea first and dairy products then the steamed buuz. Guests have to taste everything offered by the host and main dishes on the table. Gift-giving is very symbolic and respective to the White Month celebration. When guests leave, the host family gives gifts to everyone to thank their visit.

Moreover, there are some rituals primarily linked with Buddhism. Many people go to temples or monasteries to hear prayers and chants for the well-being of the new year.

The White Moon festival is linked to Mongolian people of all ages in life. This festival expresses ideas and wishes of peace, mercifulness, prosperity, and reconciliation.