Climbing the stairs to the family apartment of a friend’s Mongolian colleague, I felt a tang of nervousness. The other foreigners I was with were chattering in whispers about how exactly to present the crisp 10 000 tugrik bill to the grandparents. I reckon that all of us were worried about screwing up the line “amar baina uu?” and making a social faux pas. Personally, I was most worried about whether or not my note was crisp enough…
Mongolians, like the Chinese, celebrate the lunar New Year every January/February. Known as Tsagaan Sar (literally ‘white moon‘), the New Year symbolises the end of winter and is a welcoming to the coming spring. The celebrations last between 2-3 days and are an important family tradition in Mongolia. In fact, the whole country seems to shut down for the celebrations.
During my trip to Mongolia, I was lucky enough to be invited to a Tsagaan Sar celebration and experience this festival first-hand. However, I had no idea what to expect and only moments before was I told about the greeting to the grandparents and the tradition of giving money – needless to say, I was a tad nervous.
Entering the coworker’s family apartment was a big ordeal as we had to make our way around multitudes of family members who filled every room. But once free of our jackets and coats, we made our way to the lounge, a room void of all people except two. Both of whom were wearing traditional Mongolian wear.
But that’s not to say that the room wasn’t full. Taking up most of the space was a large table full of food. A whole cooked sheep stood in the very centre of the table with a tower of white biscuits (known as Ul boov) and a whole bunch of other dishes and snacks surrounding it. “Luckily I haven’t eaten yet,” I thought to myself as I took in the sight.
Before sitting down at the table decked out with food, each of us made our way to the grandparents seated on the couch and knelt low, grasping each of their elbows with our palms up, saying “amar baina uu?” (are you living peacefully?) and presenting them with that crisp 10 000 tugrik bill.
Once we had done the zolgokh (traditional greeting), we all sat around the table and were given some airag (milk). Apparently, dairy products and white snacks are an important part of the Tsagaan Sar festival. This is why the first item we ate from the table had to be white. Everyone took one ul boov to start off with and we discovered that in Mongolian custom, even numbers are unlucky – therefore, the biscuits were all stacked in odd numbers so as not to bring bad luck into the New Year.
We soon discovered that this also extended to the shots of vodka that we were to receive (not to our disappointment, of course). Therefore, we couldn’t just have one shot of vodka, but we had to have a minimum of three. In fact, the grandparents often get raucously drunk as they have to share about 4-5 bottles of vodka with all the guests passing through on the three days of celebrations. But before the shots of powerful vodka, the grandfather stood up and gave a rousing speech (in Mongolian of course), to which we toasted and downed our shots.
We were then free to eat as much food as we liked, with a bowl of buuz (dumplings) being passed around. Of course, we also had to abide by the ‘odd number’ rule and had to eat at least three. (But of course they were so delicious that I quite ate my fill).
After having sufficiently eaten enough buuz and drunken enough vodka, it was time for us to go – the whole ceremony actually only takes about 40 minutes as many different groups of family and friends need to visit the family during the three days of celebrations. But another surprise was in store – you see, it’s customary to receive a gift from the host family for visiting them. Therefore, we all left with socks and snacks, feeling sufficiently tipsy and ready to continue drinking. All in all, it was a successful Tsagaan Sar – with the only faux pas being committed by Simon who spilled his vodka on the cooked sheep…