Tsagaan Sar: The Dark Side of the White Moon

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Mongolia’s Lunar New Year holiday is called “Tsagaan Sar” which translates to “White Month” or “White Moon.” I’ve participated in it for two years and am going to sit it out this year and spend time with fellow expat friends on an escape-from-the-city/pollution weekend.

A writer and friend of mine who has been in Mongolia longer and is integrated with Mongolian family that has countryside roots shared about it on Roads & Kingdoms a few years ago. Please read her article first as a primer on the subject. In my experience it’s a bit like blending an American Thanksgiving (copious amounts of food) with New Year’s festivities (wishing luck and health for a new year), plus some historical traditions that honor the age-ranking within each family. The elder generations are respected and revered while the younger generation is given monetary and other gifts wishing them good fortune and health in the coming year. There’s lots of eating and lots of toasting! The kitchen is a busy place and food preparations begin weeks before the actual holiday. Buuz, traditional steamed dumplings as those in the featured image above, are made by the 100s or even 1000s in the weeks before.

My time in Mongolia has been spent in Ulaanbaatar (UB), the country’s capital of approximately 1.3 million people. While many countryside people have migrated to UB, my interactions and acquaintances in the city are primarily second and third generation city folk–they weren’t raised in the countryside and city life is what they know. While I DO understand and appreciate what Tsagaan Sar provides for countryside families (aka nomadic peoples)–the opportunity to gather together (some traveling quite a distance) to visit and celebrate life–I’d also say that this is not needed for those making life in the city.

I’ve talked with numerous individuals from the younger generations and they find Tsagaan Sar to be a burden and an interference/upset to their lives. It is a holiday that operates out of obligation and duty, and is less motivated by genuine interest in spending time with one’s family members. Most “visits” to any family member’s home last from 45 minutes to two hours (it takes 30 minutes to cook a fresh batch of buuz) and then you move on to the next home, making space for new arrivals. Additionally, the holiday seems to cause an economic hardship on elder generations  (some of whom take out loans to afford the food and gifts they need for the holiday) who are responsible for hosting days and days of rounds and rounds of visiting family and friends for which they must provide food, drink, and a gift for each person as they depart their home.

The upside is that this is a holiday for which family members do get together and it’s been my observation that despite living in the same city, some families rarely make the time or effort to get together and visit. Tsagaan Sar ensures that everyone gets a once-a-year face-to-face interaction. Grandparents are kiss-sniffed and babies are passed around. The younger generations are busy watching the little kids or keeping the dishes and glasses refilled. The winter months are cold and dark and having a few days off from work in late January or February is a welcomed break from the day-to-day grind.

This year it’s out with the Year of the Rooster and in with the Year of the Dog. May the new year bring your family good health and happiness!

Heather Caveney
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  1. I can’t imagine making 1000s of buuz, it must take them a very long time to do that! But, I would imagine that they are experts at making them now! Great article, very insightful as to the differences in how people celebrate certain holidays. 🙂

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