Tsagaan Sar. It’d be cool to say that we spent this Mongolian holiday actually in Mongolia, but that wasn’t in the cards, so… we got the next best thing (truth be told, maybe even better). Our friends invited us over for their Mongolian Lunar New Year celebration! And lemme tell ya, Mongols don’t mess around when it comes to this holiday…
Okay, backing up for a sec… so, despite all my posts thus far being about solo travel, I’m married (scored me a hottie Naval aviator just a couple years ago!) and, thank goodness, he loves to travel about as much as I do. In our short time together, Steev and I have already lived in 3 places (currently in Monterey, CA) and recently added a tiny human to the mix.
We wanted to inject a little culture into our lives during our short time stationed here in Cali, while Steev finishes up his masters degree, but weren’t going to be able to travel to far-off locations for a hot minute. Our solution? Host an exchange student!
This past fall, Steev was told that several international students started at the Naval Postgraduate School each quarter, so he threw our name in the hat as a potential host family for a fellow student. And we were paired with the most kick-ass Mongolian family I could’ve ever hoped to meet!
Several months in, our friend Munkhbat (what, can’t pronounce that?? Haha! You can call him Muggy for short) did us the insane honor of inviting us to his family’s Lunar New Year celebration (although we’re their host family, they have their own housing).
Known as Tsagaan Sar (literal translation: White Moon), this celebration takes place over 3 days, starting on the first new moon after the winter solstice. It involves some unique traditions that I was pretty stoked to learn all about. On a recent food-and-drink-filled Saturday, here’s what I discovered…
A couple caveats before I get started: 1 – Apologies for all the low-res phone photos you’re gonna encounter. This super organized gal left her camera on the coffee table that day… 2 – Hope the photo progression isn’t too confusing. Some were taken during our celebration here in California, and some were taken last year when Muggy’s fam celebrated in Mongolia. They let me use them to round out this post and give y’all a better idea of how it all looks!
Mongolian Lunar New Year Traditions
Lunar New Year is the country’s biggest holiday celebration, and families go all out donning traditional Mongolian clothing. Both men and women wear robe-like items called deels, accessorized with wide sashes. Men and boys typically wear wide-rimmed hats, while women and girls wear headpieces with long tassels at their temples, called Mongol undesnii goyol. Or, like Muggy’s wife Bayarjargal (what, can’t pronounce that, either?? Haha! You can call her Jackie), some women will opt for long earrings instead.
Deels were worn for centuries in Mongolia, though in today’s modern era, you won’t come across folks wearing them much, particularly in urban areas. These days, they don’t break out this attire for just any ole celebration… traditional dress is pretty much reserved for Lunar New Year. (Steev fit right in, in all his neon-yellow-t-shirt glory…)
One of the most important Mongolian traditions during Tsagaan Sar is their greeting. The eldest family member, with a silk scarf draped on their forearms, greets each family member by placing his/her hands on top of the other’s forearms, giving two kisses, and saying:
Amar baina uu? Sar shinedee saikhan shinelj baina uu?
It means: How are you? Happy Lunar New Year! (Loosely translated…)
The rest of the family then repeats the greeting to each other. The older person always puts their hands on top of the younger person’s forearms. And the little guys tend to find an extra treat in the hands of their elders… Cold, hard cash!
Dilemma alert! What if you don’t know the age of the person you’re greeting?! No worries… rather than asking, you simply alternate arms, putting one underneath and one on top of the other’s arms. This is what Jackie and I did. We’ve since found out who’s older… I’m not telling…
Next, I got a lesson on the Huurug, a snuff bottle filled with granulated tobacco that’s passed around at every Lunar New Year celebration. Each person takes a whiff before handing it off to their neighbor. In the process, each person asks/wishes for the other’s well-being. If you haven’t seen each other for a while, you discuss the past year and the year ahead. (How’s the fam? How was your year? Ya know, the usual…)
The proper protocol for passing the bottle is to hold it in your right hand, while supporting your right forearm with your left hand, and pass it into the next person’s right hand. Most importantly, the bottle’s lid must be cracked open! Passing a closed snuff bottle negates your well-wishes.
These guys are serious about their traditions!
Jackie and Muggy’s mama (I call her mama!), rocked out a kick-ass spread for their guests, including some of the most delicious salads and sides I’ve eaten in a while. I mean, I never knew slaw actually tasted good. Go figure…
Okay, back to the facts. The Lunar New Year meal is eaten in a specific order. You must first have a drink of tea before moving on to something white, usually rice… or a gigantic, dairy-heavy, layered biscuit thingy called Hewiin boov. From it, I sampled what was essentially a piece of dried yogurt…
After that, you’re free to eat up! Typically, it’s a meat-heavy meal (as depicted in the photos with huge hunks o’ lamb, taken during last year’s celebration when Muggy’s fam was still in Mongolia), but Muggy kept his US-version a little more low-key. I mean, who wants to go through the hassle of sourcing a whole side of lamb or, even more difficult in the States, horse meat, and then spending days preparing it?? #IdRatherBeDrinking
In its place, they offered a little cold-cut tray, which was more than adequate. In fact, all their veggie offerings were so damn delicious, it was hardly necessary. Gotta keep with tradition, tho (which the veggies are not)! In doing so, they also made buuz, meat-filled steamed dumplings. Not surprisingly, also delicious.
For four hours, I ate and drank, and then ate and drank some more… sadly for me (and more so, for my family), my cuisine doesn’t some close to what Jackie made. I stalled so long eating that we were one of the last families to leave…
So grateful we were invited to spend such a special day with such special people. Thanks, Muggy and fam! Next time, we’re trekking to Mongolia to celebrate with you there!