A Traditional Tsagaan Sar
Uuganaa Ramsay now lives in Scotland, but she was born and grew up in Mongolia. With Tsagaan Sar – Mongolian New Year – just days away, her thoughts return to her home country and the celebrations she enjoyed as a child.
When I was a student in 1990s in Ulaanbaatar I always came home to Zavhan to help my parents with the preparations for Tsagaan Sar – the Mongolian New Year – which was celebrated in January or February depending on the lunar calendar. There were three main preparations for Tsagaan Sar. The first was making meatball dumplings wrapped in a thin flour and water-dough pastry. My family made over three thousand dumplings. Word would spread that we were making our dumplings and relatives and friends would gather. We would all have different duties, with some people rolling out the dough while others wrapped minced meat inside. As I was one of the youngest I was on rolling-pin duty. Once they were all done we had the tasting of the dumplings, with lamb noodle soup. It was a great social activity as people would chat endlessly and it often turned to local gossip, with discussions about who is marrying whom and everyone adding their own titbits!
The other preparation for Tsagaan Sar was making long pastries like biscuits or scones, rectangular-shaped with rounded corners similar to a shoe sole. They were piled up in an elegant display with sweets and dried curds on top. My mum predicted how the next year would end up depending on how well these delicate scones had turned out. The final step was to display the meat beside the carefully made scone tower with the sweets and treats. This was usually the back of a sheep with its tail still on, steamed carefully without twisting it. It seemed that the bigger and fattier the tail, the better the quality. The meat was cooked a couple of days before the Tsagaan Sar, ready for the big day.
The eve of Tsagaan Sar was always the busiest day of the year. My dad would vacuum the floor and rugs of the whole ger and my mum would be busy sewing our new deels in a race against time. I would be busy dusting, polishing and washing everything we could get our hands on and ironing and folding clothes. Everyone made a great effort to decorate our ger beautifully with peacock feathers and china ornaments, and we sewed bright-yellow fringes of fabric with glittery threads all around, just above the curtains.
Every year on Tsagaan Sar morning we got up very early and prepared the house to perfection before sunrise. It was an incredible feeling, a bit like Christmas Day in the West, I guess. I couldn’t sleep, tossing and turning, waiting for the exciting day. My mum would make our first tea of the New Year and sprinkle some of it outside towards the eight sides of the horizon, praying with one hand to her chest in an upright position and one hand holding a shiny new ladle with the tea.
We all put on our best clothes and scrubbed up well. Then, happy with our fine home and ready to welcome guests, we started the day and the New Year. We went around visiting our families, starting with the eldest. When my grandparents and grandfather lived nearby we would start from theirs. We welcomed our relatives, greeting them in the traditional Mongolian way using both hands. The oldest person places his or her arms out straight, with the palms turned down, on the outstretched arms of the youngest person. Each addresses the other with the traditional greeting of good wishes such as: ‘Amar sain baina uu? Sar shinedee saikhan shinelej baina uu?’ (Hello, how do you do? Are you having a nice New Year celebration?) or ‘Mend ee, ta saikhan shinelej baina uu?’ (Hello, are you enjoying yourself at this New Year’s celebration?), while gently touching cheeks. We would have queues standing to greet people and then we all sat down.
As is tradition, most of the men would swap snuff bottles as a token of friendship and eventually pass them around to the women and the children. We would sniff gently from the half-open snuff bottle before returning it to the owner. These snuff bottles were usually carved out of expensive stone such as granite. Sometimes, as children, we would be naughty and sniff a pinch full of the tobacco from the bottle and have the biggest sneeze ever, almost blowing our heads off. That would leave us with tears streaming from our eyes and running noses, making us look all yucky and funny at the same time.
There is a traditional order, ritual and set of unwritten rules for almost everything at Tsagaan Sar. Once everyone has greeted everyone else, they sit down and are presented with a bowl of tea with milk, salt and a little bit of butter or cream. Then umpteen plates of dumplings are steamed and eaten by the guests. Some families might also prepare potato salads. My mum was good at presenting food beautifully. She would decorate the plateful of dumplings with cabbage leaves and thin slices of beef fat. The people who are considered to be important and particularly the elderly are given the fattiest food as it is considered to be the best. We also had rice with raisins, butter and sugar. I love that food. I could eat bowls and bowls of it. Of course, everyone needs to leave space for later, as all day and every day of the Tsagaan Sar month, we eat and drink the same food with different families taking turns to host the feasting.
Panoramic Journeys arrange tailormade journeys to Mongolia during Tsagaan Sar. You can talk to one of us to let us know if you would like to celebrate with some of our rural nomadic friends or perhaps a more urban visit – or indeed a combination.
Uuganaa Ramsay is the author of Mongol: A Journey from Loss and Prejudice to Belonging
In this powerful memoir, Uuganaa skilfully interweaves the extraordinary story of her own childhood in Mongolia with the sadly short life of her son Billy, who had Down’s Syndrome. Billy becomes a symbol of union and disunion, cultures and complexity, stigma and superstition – and inspires Uuganaa to challenge prejudice and campaign to change attitudes.