Сар шинэдээ сайхан шинэлээрэй!

That is − Happy Lunar New Year

Social media platforms are inundated with well-wishes on the occasion of the Chinese new year but you have to have a certain level of connection to other parts of Asia to realize that this period is celebrated elsewhere too with the same intensity. Dates sligthly vary, there may be a few days difference between the start of the so-called Chinese new year and the start of the celebrations in other countries.

Because it’s Mongolia that I know best of the countries where the Lunar New Year is celebrated, I decided to bring you a few photos and stories about this special period. I am not keen on freezing temperatures but I have spent two winters in Mongolia and I even enjoyed its challenges. In retrospect. One time I could participate in the Tsagaan sar (Цагаан сар – White moon or white month) celebrations too. I arrived to take up a position in the Zanabazar Museum of Fine Arts in Ulaanbaatar. My flight landed in -40°C and it didn’t get much better for a couple of months. When the temperature reached -20°C, I felt ecstatic, then -10°C truly felt like springtime.

Many researchers look at the world wide-eyed, expecting to see untouched traditions as they could read about them in various publications. Traditions rarely stay untouched though, they constantly evolve and in some cases it’s probably for the better. I was aware of it but when I was on the field it still felt strange to see the extent of those changes. As if particular cultures somehow did a time-travel, mixing ancient traditions with modern convenience. While certain countries went through the process gradually and by now they hardly keep any traditions, other countries were forced to develop differently. Political and historical events influence these processes to a great extent. And now, they have to or want to assimilate into the so-called developed world with the speed of light.

I was invited to attend a Tsagaan sar celebration organized by my then boss. I arrived a few days before and the jet leg still made my life complicated. Nevertheless, you don’t say no to an invitation like that! During this time of the year families gather and they prepare the usual buuz (бууз) in their hundreds. This is a type of steamed dumpling filled with minced mutton or beef but I have eaten it with camel meet and pork too. They are juicy, tasty and filling. Of course other delicacies are served too and as the expections grow nowadays, it happens that people go into debt simply to be able to present a lavish celebration. I didn’t expect the latter, but I was surprised to see my host taking out pre-made buuz from the freezer, the kind that you can buy in any smaller or bigger shop in the city. Poor me, this is how dreams vanish.

It is customary to bring gifts to the host and the type of the presents change too. Gifts were always practical, nothing useless could be offered, simply because we are talking about a nomadic people who couldn’t afford carrying unnecessary objects with themselves. Witnessing as someone hands over a milk-carton makes you see the world in a different light though. Gifting money is an option too, the amount of which depends on your status. A blue khadag (хадаг), the same ceremonial scarf that you might have seen on Buddhist statues, stupas or around the neck of the Dalai Lama (in his case in white), always accompanies the gifts. It is a symbol of respect, purity and compassion, it brings you luck and it is a general way to wish one well. Its blue colour symbolizes the blue sky, which occupies a special place in the hearts of Mongolians.

This year the first day of Tsagaan sar is the 2nd of February, when life stops in Mongolia and as much as possible in the Mongolian communities across the world. Life evolves around hosting and visiting family and friends, and showing respect to the elders. Сайхан шинэлээрэй!