Thursday, February 16, 2012

UBPost: The Changing Culture of the Mongolian White Month

Originally posted Feb 15, 2012 in the UBPost
by A. Jargalmaa

Tsagaan Sar (White Moon or White Month) , is the Mongolian New Year festival calculated on the lunar calendar. For more than 2,000 years Mongolians have been celebrating White month, we celebrate it to mark the end of winter and the beginning of spring.

Tsagaan Sar is the celebration of new life and symbolizes wealth and prosperity in the family. The holiday runs over three days, on the first day, the eldest and most respected family members are visited. The holiday provides an opportunity for people to gather, and celebrate and exchange gifts.

Families prepare for the holiday a month in advance by making plenty of food and gifts. The eldest family make 1000-3000 buuz (steamed Mongolian dumplings).

In rural areas, because of the distance and weather conditions, the celebration at times can last longer than a month.

Tsagaan Sar's Eve is called Bituun and that evening Mongolians do a special ritual (Bitvvleg). It means respect all things fully. Full darkness full souls, full stomachs, and full homes. All neighbors visit each other with mare's milk, vodka, traditional steamed dumplings, and cookies. This night is the last one on the lunar calendar.

On the first day of celebration called "Siniin Negen", people go up to the mountain before the sun comes up. They see the New Year's first sun, which means that the family will have luck and live well that year.

At the celebration site, people light bonfires and raise the Mongolian flag just before the sun rise. As the sun edges over the horizon, many Mongolians throw milk offerings into the air, while others shouted excitedly, welcoming the new year. Then they have to go to their homes and everyone will wear new clothes, open the "orkh" (ger's top window cover) and make a fire.

Tsagaan Sar signifies the beginning of Spring. Although the steppes are still covered with snow, the scent of spring is already in the air. The coming year's weather is analyzed based on the animal's mood and behavior as well as other signs of nature.

All men go to the top of a nearby hill or mountain carrying food and make a prayer to Nature and the State again. Then, the men go in certain directions prescribed by the Buddhist horoscope. This ceremony is called "muruu gargakh", which means "starting your footprints". It is believed important to start your way in the right direction on the first day of the new year as described by your lunar horoscope to by lucky.

With the sunrise, the greeting ceremony starts in the family. The oldest person stays in "khoimor" (ger's northern side) and the younger family members greet him or her first, then greet each other. The younger greets the older by extending arms with palms up and holding the olders arms from underneath. Everybody greets each other except husband and wife. Usually, people hold "khadag" (long and narrow piece of yellow, white or blue silk with various meanings) in their arms.

When the greeting ceremony is over, everyone sits behind the table and starts exchanging "koorog" (a snuff bottle made usually of semi-precious stones and filled with finely pulverized tobacco). The typical greeting words are "Daaga dalantai, byaruu bulchintai, sureg mal targan orov uu?", which can be translated as "Does your 2-year old horse have enough fat on it?" (means good health), "Does your 2-year old yak have enough muscle?" (means good power), "Did all your animals survive the winter safely?" and "Sar shinedee saihan orov uu? Nas suuder hed hurev"" which used to ask an old person about his or her good health and age as people are proud of old age.

Exchanging khoorog means expressing friendly intentions to each other and is usually the starting point of introducing a stranger. Exchanging khoorog creates a warm atmosphere between people and makes a good beginning of friendly talk that helps to learn the true heart of the stranger.

People eat a lot of "buuz" (steamed Mongolian dumplings) and drink "airag" (fermented mares milk). When the ceremony finishes in the family, the hosts give presents to each person.

The present symbolizes a wish for wellbeing, health, wealth and power. Everyone moves to the next family starting with the next oldest person's ger first. The Tsagaan Sar celebration can continue for a month, but the first, second, and third days are the most important.

Buddhist monasteries and temples hold rituals and services to pray and bless for the well being of the worshipers.

Once Tsagaan Sar was purely a traditional holiday, that people celebrated by meeting relations that they hadn't met for a long time. Nowadays ideas of White Month are changing.  People are more likely to flaunt their wealth. We used to exchange snuff-boxes for greeting but now snuff bottles are used with a show of wealth.

Also Mongolians use to wear "deel" (garments) on traditional holidays like Tsagaan Sar, Naadam, and Independence Day, but now the sentiment has changed to "who will wear the best deel?"

The change in culture can be attributed to the infiltration of greed. Downturns in the market, poor exchange rates and inflation are creating an atmosphere where people feel worse off.

Why don't we try and celebrate Tsagaan Sar like the old days? Mongolians have a choice in how they celebrate, what will they choose? Let's hop that this culture of flaunting will change.