There’s so much to tell you about Tsagaan Sar, I can’t possibly fit it all into a single post. So for the next few days—maybe a week, I’m not yet sure, this is Mongolia after all—I’ll be posting short dispatches about my first experience of this all-important holiday. Stay tuned, and if you have any questions I don’t seem to be answering (or, for my Mongolian friends and fellow PCVs, corrections to anything I’ve gotten utterly wrong) let me know in the comments!
Here’s how my day began last Thursday: I rose before sunup, pulled on two layers of long underwear, and wrapped myself in the silk deel my teacher Enkhzaya had delivered to my home only a few hours earlier, at midnight. Just as it started to get light, I heard a soft knock on my door, and the sweet, tiny voice of my seven year-old host sister, Narantungalag, calling my name, ‘Jonna! Jonna! Yavtsgaai!’ (Let’s go!) Outside in their running SUV, the entire family was waiting, also in colorful Mongolian attire (and parkas), ready to go up the mountain.
We only had to drive about three minutes to get to the base of Erdenemandal, where we left the car to proceed on foot. We’d arrived a little late, and the top of the mountain was already crowded, so our climb stopped about three-quarters of the way up. (Lest you think this was some sort of an epic trek, I should clarify that Erdenemandal is no Mt. Rainier—it’s actually a relatively small mountain/hill that takes about ten minutes to summit. But still. The views are pretty amazing.)
Even more amazing, though, was looking out at the other nearby peaks circling Bayankhongor. Deserted on any other day of the year, they were teeming with people, like something out of a movie about Chinggis Khan—armies surrounding the valley below. But people weren’t there for war; they were there for worship. Eyes all trained on the eastern horizon, they waited to see the sun rise through the fog and haze of early morning fires.
And as soon as it appeared, loud cheers rose from every direction. This, it turned out, was the Mongolian version of the ball drop in Times Square. We were celebrating the exact start of the Lunar New Year—the Year of the Sheep. (Also, people were cold, and I think celebrating the fact that they could soon get off that mountain. But first, there was a final ritual to attend to.)
As we’d come up the mountain, I’d noticed that mothers were all carrying pitchers or thermoses of milk. Once the sun rose, they each began pouring their milk onto tsatsals—ceremonial, carved wooden spoons used to throw the milk toward the sky, offering it to the gods. Tsagaan Sar literally means White Moon or White Month, and I’ve heard it refers to any or all of the following: the color of the new moon, the color of the sky (turning from black in winter to light and bright in spring), or the abundance of dairy products available in warmer months. So on the occasion of Tsagaan Sar, this milk offering gives thanks for the end of the hard winter, and the bountiful months to come. Amen!