Tsagaan Sar, or White Moon, is the one of the main public events that take place annually in Mongolia. It marks the end of winter and beginning of spring, and represents the New Year’s cycle by lunar calendar. The lunar New Year’s measurements of time based on the phases of the moon and takes place two months after the winter solstice, falling between January 21 and February 20 in the Gregorian calendar. The last evening of the old year called “bituun” and close family members gather for a reunion on that day.
During the days of Tsagaan Sar, families visit the oldest and most senior member of their extended family and exchange gifts. In addition, family members also visit close friends and solitary neighbor who don’t relatives. The disciples and followers pay respect and may visit teacher, scholar or any distinguished people in their field.
Getting ready to give gifts for guests is a difficult task. For example, my 90 years old parents receive approximately hundred guests: the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren; the families related by the marriage of the children; their brothers and sisters with their own children; first and second cousin; nephew and niece etc. Fortunately not all the members of the families live in the same place. Some relatives live in other Mongolian cities, or even in a foreign country. Many of the grandchildren, great grandchildren, grandnephew and grandniece study abroad.
You can never predict exactly how many people will attend, or how many children of each gender will be there. The list from last year’s attendance may help, but number always changes. New in-laws and babies grown into tottlers must be added to the list. If a relative has passed away, members of that family cannot celebrate Tsagaan Sar and must be excluded. Gifts will vary depending on age of the person; a gift for older woman, a 20 year old, or a child all must be appropriate.
Preparation for the Tsagaan Sar starts long before the actual event. Everything very symbolic: every family thoroughly cleans the house to sweep away any ill-fortune in hope of making space for incoming good luck. The head of the family goes outside and walks in the auspicious direction as prescribed by Buddhist Lama (priest), while blessing God for all the wellness, health, good fortune in his family, and reciting mantra (prayer) and ceremonially destroying the obstacles (breaking a small piece wood, sprinkling a water).
Even Tsagaan Sar’s meals are symbolic: piles of ceremonial bread should be in layered in odd numbers and build in the fasion of a pyramid, which symbolizes Mount Sumera or Shambala Realm. One layer signifies happiness and another layer represents hardship; the odd numbers mean that after a feast there may be grief, but you could always return to a feast again. This symbolic bread must not be eaten during Tsagaan Sar. Afterwards, it is distributed amongst the children. Main dishes include boiled meat, ‘buuz’ and dairy products. Buuz are dumplings made with minced meat and prepared beforehand in hundreds of pieces, then frozen. When guests arrive, the appropriate amount of buuz is taken out and steamed. There are also different kinds of salads, pastries and fruitsand sweets. However, no matter how appetizing the buuz and sweets look, you must start with white dish as a dairy product or rice with raisin (berees).
Every year there is a lot of noise about the modernization of Tsagaan Sar. Many feel that it’s too archaic. However, when you have older parents or grandparents, who are used to celebrating in the old ways, it is difficult to change. Tradition is powerful.