First, a few basics about the Mongolian holiday Tsagaan Sar. Tsagaan means “white” and Sar can be translated as “month” or “moon”. The holiday—arguably Mongolia’s most important—is the celebration of the Lunar New Year, held a month after the first new moon following the Winter Solstice. This year it fell on February 11th. It’s celebrated for a minimum of three days, but can easily be stretched out for a month. And yes, the White Moon is celebrated largely by eating foods that are white.
That much you can learn from Wikipedia. But Tsagaan Sar, like the best holidays, is all about family. So in order to truly understand it, you need to be kin to some Mongolian. And this is where I’ve made some unique commitments to getting the inside story. I am a native Californian of Korean extraction who met a Mongolian man, moved to his home region in north-central Mongolia, and, as a final act of assimilation perhaps, gave birth to a daughter earlier this winter. I am now, irrevocably, family.
And so, here is my view from the inside of the festival. These are the Seven Steps of TsagaanSar.
1. Clean your house
The start of Tsagaan Sar, Bituun, is a time to clean house, literally and figuratively. Carpets are cleaned, debts are paid, grudges are let go, and bellies are filled for an auspicious start to the New Year. Nomads don’t need New Year’s resolutions. Best get the job done now, because there’s only going to be more work to be done later.
2. Build something that looks like a Twinkie castle
Ul Boov—in the lyrical, literal style of the Mongolian language—means “shoe sole cake”, like the impressions your feet leave in the crisp snow of a long winter. The cakes are stacked in odd numbered layers, suffering sandwiched by happiness and always outnumbered so as to signify peace and contentment. The tower is filled with offerings of aaruul (dried milk curds), sugar cubes, and candies—“white foods” to illustrate and honor the purity of Shambhala, the mystical kingdom of Tibetan Buddhism.
Aaruul is traditionally made in the summertime and meant to be kept and eaten throughout the year. It can be made from the milk of four of the “five snouts” (the domesticated animals of Mongolia): sheep, goat, camel, cow/yak, but never from the milk of a horse. It’s the working nomad’s Power Bar, imbued with the best nutritional properties of milk, portable and well-preserved, and because it’s hard as a rock, it takes a long time to eat. I like it best in the summer, when it has the consistency of dense fudge and is still chewable. Our aaruul came from family in the countryside, dried in the summer sun on the roof of a Mongol ger, the same dwelling nomads have lived in for centuries.
3. Ride the rangelands
With our boov built, we were prepared to entertain visitors, but a family’s first responsibility of the holiday is to pay tribute to the head of the family. My husband’s family matriarch is his aunt, but we all call her Emee (Grandmother). She has nine children, an award winning accomplishment in Mongolia; women who have 4 or more children get subsidies from the state, plaques, medals, and high praise all around. Emee truly embodies the maternal spirit. She supports everyone in the family, raises everyone’s children like her own, and guides them through all of life’s milestones. Her winter camp in the countryside, between Darkhan and the small town of Nomgon, is our first stop of the day.
This is the heart of the Tsagaan Sar tradition: it is steeped in Buddhist and nomadic traditions, a filial pilgrimage. We rode in a Hyundai Sonata with a baby’s carseat in the back, but it was in some ways the same journey as in centuries past, bringing people together across a landscape that travelers often find lonely. You can easily romanticize the solitude of the steppes, but it’s a bitter landscape to be alone in. Family keeps Mongolia alive.
4. Pass the snuff
Every culture has its own greeting traditions, and Tsagaan Sar calls for nearly all of the Mongolian formalities in a single session. First, younger family members pay respect to their elders by offering a formal greeting, plus a sniff or a kiss on each cheek. Holding up the elder’s arms is a gesture that says “I’ll support you the way you’ve supported me”.
After the khadag greeting comes the exchange of snuff bottles. The bottles are held gently with three fingers and the thumb of the right hand and offered with your arm extended. The recipient takes a small sampling of snuff and passes it back. The bottle works its way around the room, never closed until its back in the owner’s hands. As everyone’s snuff bottles were being wrapped up in their silk pouches and put away, spaces were being cleared on the table already loaded with small plates of potato salad, candy, fruit and kimchee.
5. Eat your sheep
I’m a former vegan, but meat is king in Mongolia, and Tsagaan Sar is no exception. The centerpiece of the Tsagaan Sar table is uuts, the boiled back, tail, and sometimes head of a sheep. A family looks for the largest, fattest tailed sheep to overflow on the platter. The fatter the tail, the more good fortune headed everyone’s way in the New Year.
The meat and fat can be eaten as is, or softened with a soak in a cup of milk tea. While slices from the uuts are being offered, a large silver bowl of airag (fermented mare’s milk—still not vegan) is passed around to be sipped, but never emptied. The fermentation gives the horse milk a sharp tang and the slightest hint of carbonation. In the summertime people drink it by the jug, but on special occasions throughout the year, it’s offered in a single shared bowl.
By the time our bowls of milk tea were emptied, space had been cleared on the already overflowing table for big bowls of buuz, the signature menu item of Tsagaan Sar. Buuz is a steamed goat or sheep meat dumpling with a thick, doughy skin. The meat is mixed with onion and garlic, and at its best, a meaty broth is created as it’s steamed. Leaving some broth in your bowl is fine, as it mixes nicely with a refill of milk tea.
Families make hundreds, sometimes thousands, of buuz in preparation for Tsagaan Sar. The Mongol ger at Emee’s winter camp had become the kitchen for the day, and its iron stove, fired with wood and dried dung, stayed busy with round after round of buuz being steamed for the table. And while I can’t say that Mongolians invented competitive eating, there is traditionally a friendly who-can-eat-the-most-buuz competition among family members that would make heroic eaters like Joey Chestnut proud.
6. Drink vodka, get your fortune told, ride horses
First thing we had done for Bituun the day before was to stock up on vodka for visitors and all of the inevitable toasts for the New Year. Suffice it to say that a clear liquid that warms you powerfully is welcome in Mongolian winters.
In between toasts, everyone took advantage of taking in the crowd: rarely is so much family gathered in one place. Only a few faces were missing. Middle children were left at home with the grazing herds, and married daughters were delayed by visits to their husband’s elders first. A set of four sheep ankle bones were passed around for quick fortune telling. They’re rolled like dice, with the four sides of the bone representing camel, horse, sheep and goat. You get three throws of the bones, which gives some hope to those with a cold hand.
Despite the frigid weather, the bravest of the grandchildren went outside to ride horses that had been brought in from the range and tacked up—the horses that hadn’t been eaten by the wolves, that is. The youngest children rode double with an older arm around their waist, except for 8-year-old Zoloo, who regularly jockeys for Emee’s two-year old racehorses.
7. Ride onward
It’s your cue to leave when gifts are given. At Tsagaan Sar modest gifts are given by the host to their guest, but my Western origin lets me get away with breaking protocol and bringing gifts for the host. Gift exchange in Mongolia is similar to other parts of Asia, and is normally an understated affair. The gift is offered with two hands, and accepted with the same. Thank Yous and Your Welcomes are said, but the gift is quickly put out of sight and even though it may be greatly appreciated, it’s rarely spoken of ever again.
We rode off after a small exchange, not for home, but for more visits to family in Erdenet. This year it took my husband and I four days to visit all the homes of family in Darkhan and Erdenet, and we still weren’t able to come through on every invitation presented. On top of that, we managed to play host to a few visitors, though I got away with not serving buuz and milk tea. Next year, I will get no such free pass. I will be, even more than this year, family.
Michelle Borok is a Darkhan-based writer for Giant Robot and others. You can follow her at @invictus.