See also:

Tsagaan Sar: The Mongolian Lunar New Year

for more information and explanation of terminoligy used
and Don Croners Tsogchin ceremony at Dambadarjaa Monastery


Tsagaan Sar in Khentii:

A Mongolian Lunar New Year Celebration in the Countryside

by Guido Verboom


It is yet another cold day in Ulaanbaatar. I am sitting on a small stool, drinking boiled water in a home in a ger district in the West of the city. We are waiting for the last person to close her suitcase before heading for Ondorkhaan to celebrate Tsagaan sar, the white month or moon, which starts off the Mongolian New Year. We are invited to join Erdenebat, a young monk from Gandan who has just received his Gevj degree to celebrate this festival of kinship with his family in Khentii.

At last Erdenebat gets up and signals everybody is ready. A little later we head of in a van filled with family members, presents and warm clothes.

There are hardly any cars on the road, and with reason. Today is a bad day for travelling. It is not only a Tuesday but also Bituun, the final day of the year, and we should have already been at the place of celebration, preparing the festivities. But all this doesn’t keep us from starting the journey full of good hopes.
We drive through a landscape that pretty much resembles what we are about to celebrate: a white moon. The bleached scenery is speckled with scarce and hardly visible gers only to be cut through by one black vain: the recently completed part of the millennium road.

After we have passed the border with Khentii, the car is suddenly stopped by a woman that is walking all by herself in the middle of the snow covered steppes. She asks if she can have a ride, while tears are rolling from her eyes. But our car is already cramped and we have to leave her by herself. When we drive away Erdenebat turns off the radio and puts his hands together for a moment. Then while circling the beads of his rosary he says: “Please pray for this woman, pray to the Tara god.” And after a short silence: “Even if you think she is stupid for walking here on her own”

Having overcome some car trouble we arrive at Erdenebat’s family when its already dark, but still well in time to celebrate Bituuleg. The sheep is already cut and laid on a platter, crowned by a couple of buuz and a knife. The ceremonial breads brought from Ulaanbaatar are now piled up in five layers to make the Ul Boov. We eat our first buuz and drink the first sips of vodka, enough to secure a prosperous coming year, but little enough to be able to continue celebrating for the coming days.
While excitedly exchanging news twelve o’clock passes unnoticed. Here a year is not counted in hours or minutes. And after a small prayer, we call it a day. With many layers of clothing and as many blankets we survive the night and get up on this new years first bright morning. When we arrive at Erdenebat’s home, ,it is time for one of the highlights of Tsagaan Sar: The Zolgokh, ritual of greeting the elderly and respected and wish them all the best for the coming year. Anthropologists see Tsagaan Sar as a festival not only to celebrate but also to define kinship. When asked who his family was, a Buryat simply answered all the people he visited on Tsagaan Sar. Apart from kinship, the Zolgokh also defines hierarchy. On the television the Speaker of Parliament is greeted by the Prime Minister, and Erdenebat is greeted by his older brothers and sisters because he is a monk, and thus highly respected. Also I put on my hat, get out my khadag and come to him, supporting his arms, bringing my face close to his and say the special New Year greeting “Amar sain uu?”.

Then we indulge in the perfect combination of vodka that helps us digest the many buuz which in turn help us to keep at least slightly sober. On top of that the snuff keeps us awake and again only slightly alert. Tsagaan Sar in the country seems to be a much more relaxed affair than in the capital. Less people to visit and less available transport, makes for a laid-back holiday. The family takes their time to tell stories of the past. They remember how they until fifteen years ago celebrated Tsagaan Sar secretly. For those with regulated jobs, meetings would be called on the first day of the New Year to check on everybody presence. Absentees were severely punished.

In the evening we join Erdenebat to visit one of the old monks of the area. Venerable Gendenjamts is 88 years old and while a monk before socialist time, he has had many professions in the course of the years. Proudly his daughter shows his small biography in a local history book. With a smile on his face Venerable Gendenjamts tells how he used to be a wrestling champion. When we leave he gives us the regular gifts – a pack of cookies and a piece of aarool, but this time wrapped in a yellow khadag. To reflect his religion, the yellow faith, he says.
The rest of the evening is filled with more family visits, including solo concerts by small children, endless horse race videos and all the copious consumption.
The next morning we, again, challenge tradition by travelling within the first three days of the New Year, as we head home to Ulaanbaatar. But not before we pay respect at the small shrine in Erdenbat’s home to secure a save journey. And down just one more bowl of vodka for the road.


Guido Verboom is a consultant working since 2000 on different cultural and Buddhist projects in Mongolia.

Edited by U. Herold


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