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Sunday, February 6, 2011

Tsagaan Sar, Mongolian Lunar New Year

The lunar new year as celebrated in Mongolia, is similar in some respects to Chinese new year. All of Asia has a lunar new year traditional celebration and my first experience of this holiday was amazing!
The official holiday lasts three days and begins according to the moon, so the dates change each year. This year it was February 3, 4 and 5. Tsagaan sar translates to white moon, or white month.
During this celebration, the first day is generally for family members, with elders being honored. A special greeting is said. "amar bahn yy?", and you embrace with the elders arms over top your outstretched arms, and touch/sniff cheek to cheek. I rather enjoy this greeting as I tend to be a huggy/touchy type person, unlike the cultrual norms here. After using this greeting for 3 days, then going to my school gathering (where all teachers/staff were to attend, though only about 2/3 attended), I was corrected that men and women don't touch cheeks, though I did. Guess my rep as crazy American can withstand a few more cultural mishaps.....
The school gathering was similar to the tradition at someone's home. During a home visit, you are waited on hand and foot. Initially you greet all family members, eldest first. You are offered food, lots and lots of food, salads, candies, milk tea (tsute tse), then vodka (3 drinks, though traditionally you are to down the first shot then can sip the next two times), followed by wine, (same), and buuz, the traditional Mongolian Tsagaan sar food.
Buuz are the steamed dumplings, traditionally filled with meat, onion and spices. During my visits to 7 homes I ate buuz made from horse meat (quite tasty) goat, and other unknown meat. I was also given vegetarian fare at 3 of the homes, which was greatly appreciated! Families prepare hundreds and sometimes thousands of buuz for their expected visitors.
Preparation for this holiday reminds me of Christmas time in the US, with folks doing heavy cleaning and preparation for visitors, parties, open houses, only here it is very much confined to 3 days. The guests/visits are scheduled so there are only a few people at any one time, then once all the rituals have been completed, the host gives you a gift (sweets, make up, hand cream, a fortune telling game...) and that's your cue to leave!
Though it is not necessary for a visitor to give a gift, I baked russian tea cookies, and wrapped them in pretty paper and ribbon as thank yous. These were given after receiving gift from host. It was a whirlwind week!
By the time Sunday rolled around I was tired and I didn't even host anyone! Our school gathering was similar, and we met in the big room with men sitting on one side and women the other. Our school director sat at the table with the traditional white food centerpiece, and she was the first person to be greeted. Thankfully for me, there are always some counterparts looking out for me and steering me in the right direction! Following initial greetings, milk tea, then vodka, then meat was passed around then candy and white cheese curd while two llams from the Buddhist temple came and conducted a ceremony for the ocassion. Perhaps next year I will host a Tsagaan sar of my own!

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