Mongolia's national holiday

by Hun

Mongolia's national holiday

Mongolia's national holiday

In an anxiously awaited three weeks time, Mongolians will celebrate their most esteemed national holiday, Tsagaan Sar (The white month).

The first month of each spring has been one of the most important Mongolian celebrations for centuries. It is the time when winter passes, and spring is reborn. Chinggis Khaan played a most significant role in the creation of Tsagaan Sar. In 1207, on the first day of the Year of the Red Rabbit, The Great Khaan prayed to the blue sky and the vast steppe in all of his new clothes, and then paid respects to the elderly by visiting his mother. In 1216, during the year of the Red Rat, the Khaan issued a decree that would award people with gold and clothing materials from state reserves on the day of Tsagaan Sar. He also passed a law to award a special title to anyone older then 120 years, and to release prisoners on the day of Tsagaan Sar (except for those convicted of a cruelty case).

Long after the times of Chinggis Khaan, in 1911, the political and religions leader of Mongolia, Bogd Khaan, approved a new state flag featuring Soyombo (the National symbol) on a yellow background. He ordered that government houses, military establishments, and monasteries keep this flag raised outside of their compounds from the last day of winter to the 15th day of the Tsagaan Sar. The flag was to be kept inside the compounds other times of the year.

Even today, the holiday continues to be a significant tradition in Mongolian society with an intricate set of customs involved.The Tsagaan Sar Eve (the last day of winter) is called "Bituun", meaning "full darkness". It is a single night, when there is no moon visible in the sky. On this day, people eat to the point of extreme fullness. It is believed that if you are at all hungry on this eve, you will often be hungry for the year to come. Tsagaan Sar is a festival of white foods (foods with white color, including dairy products and rice). All "bituun" ceremonies begin after the dark night takes over. During the day, people clean their bodies and minds from bad things and are expected to have a fresh start. During the holiday, individuals pay respect to elders and relatives, and renew friendships.

On the first day of the New Year, people wake up before sunrise with their families, wear new clothes, and open the "Orkh" (ger's top window cover) to make a fire. Although the Mongolian landscape is still covered with snow, the scent of spring is believed to be in the air. Men walk in certain directions as prescribed by the Buddhist horoscope. This ceremony is called "Muruu gargakh", which means "Starting your footprints". It is believed that starting your life
in the right direction will bring luck for the year to come. With the sunrise, a greeting ceremony will begin with the family inside. The oldest person stays in "Hoimor" (ger's northern-most side). The younger family members first greet him or her and then greet each other. Individuals greet their elders by extending out their arms with the palms facing upward, then holding the elder's arms from underneath. Everybody greets each other except the husband and the wife. People often hold "Khadag" in their arms which are long and narrow pieces of yellow, white, or blue silk with different spiritual meanings. When the greeting ceremony has concluded, everyone sits behind the table and exchanges "Khoorog" (a snuff bottle usually made of semi-precious stones, filled with finely pulverized tobacco. Exchanging "Khoorog" is expressing friendly intentions to others and is the way strangers become acquainted with one another.

The typical greeting words are "Daaga dalantai and Byaruu bul chintai, Sureg mal targan orov uu?" This can be translated to: "Does your two-year old horse have enough fat for the winter (signifying good health), Does your two-year old yak have enough muscle (signifying power), and Did all the animals pass the winter safely?" Other customary dialogue includes, "Sar shinedee saihan orov uu?" and "Nas suuder hed hurev?" Both are used to ask the elderly about his/ her good health and age, which is something to be proud of. All people must eat many "Booz" (Steamed Mongolian dumplings) and drink "Airbag" (fermented mare's milk). When the ceremony finishes, the hosts give presents to each person. The present symbolizes a wish for health, wealth and power. Individuals then move to the next family that has an elderly person living in the ger.

Tsagaan Sar festivities continue for one month, but the first, second and third days are the most important. They consists of "Ih idee" (big plate) and "Baga idee" (small plate). "Ul boov" (Mongolian traditional biscuits) are layered on the big plate. The number of layers must always be odd. Traditionally, grandparents have seven layers and young couple's only three layers. "Uuts", Sheep's back and tail must be on the table. A larger and fatter tail is considered to be more delicious. Airag is the most important drink during Tsagaan Sar, however, "Shimiin arhi" (Milk vodka) and clear vodka also accompany the food as well. The Tsagaan Sar National Wrestling Championship is held in the Wrestling Palace. It is an important event rivaling the wrestling title of Naadam. The largest Buddhist monastery, Gandan, holds a Tsagaan Sar prayer, which is annually visited by the president and prime minister. At its core, Tsagaan Sar is an observance of the new year, a tribute to elders and loves ones, and a celebration of winter's ending and the safety of one's animals.

by B.Narandelger

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