Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Tsaagan Sar holiday and visits

Odgerel's grandmother invites all the senior couples to her home every Tsaagan Sar

Part of the month preceding Tsaagan Sar or Lunar New Year is spent cleaning the home, buying gifts and getting food, meat and buuz purchased, prepared, and ready to serve to visitors. 
Guest table at Altansukh's home
The night before the lunar New Year is Bituun. The immediate family gathers and has a feasting meal together.
Buyandelger and her daughter Enkhtuya in front of their table
There are three official holidays set aside for these visits and a day of rest afterward. In the countryside, the visits extend a week. Mongolian families start off visiting immediate family first and then spread out to visit close friends and then more distant relatives the second or third day of Tsaagan Sar.
The man at the right is a high ranking government official who came to pay tribute to his former teacher
Children living far from home have a month to visit parents or grandparents during Tsaagan Sar. If no visit is made, there is liable to be hurt feelings. 
Buyandelger's daughter came from Sweden for her first visit home in three years. Darlene's piano student and Buyandelger's granddaughter, Buyanzaya, is on the right
Adult children living in other countries try to come home every three years or so for Tsaagan Sar.
Altansukh's family with the Farmers 
A typical Tsaagan Sar visit.  Appointments are 

arranged in advance so your visit doesn’t overlap

with other guests. Plan on a two 2 – 2 ½ hour


Buted's family with all the guests. Pres. Benson, Sister Benson and Isabel are standing on the left while the other three children are on the front row. Mary Ann is on the opera student's lap.
If new guests arrive during your visit, you hurry  your visit so the new guests have undivided attention and can do their traditional greetings with the host or hostess. 

Sometimes the new arrivals are introduced to the guests already present and Tsaagan Sar greetings are exchanged between of old and arriving guests. Sometimes the arriving guests stay discreetly out of the way until the previous guests have left.

One of our Hong Kong temple trip patrons, Ariuna, on right with her daughter, Oyun-Erdene, on left
Once a host family has entertained their keys guests, they join the parade of visitors and make visits to other homes and family members. Elderly members of the family have the visitors come to them and are not expected to visit other homes.

The greeting. You are greeted warmly. You take off your shoes at the door and are offered slippers or shoe coverings. You remove your coat but leave your hat, scarf or head gear on until after the formal greetings have been made.
You seek out the oldest family member present (male and then female). You put your outstretched hands under theirs and greet them with either a light kiss on each side of the face or brush your cheeks against theirs. The symbolism is that guests or family members pledge their support by putting their arms under the older person's arms.

For a traditional greeting, Mongolians guests and family members carry a khadag – a ceremonial blue cloth - in their outstrechted arms - as they greet each the host.  
You ask each other, "Is your life peaceful?"
If the host or hostess in the 60s, 70s or 80s, you give him or her a gift of money after the greeting. It depends on the closeness of the relationship but a typical gift is in the range of $14 down to about $ 3.   

If you are appreciably older than the host, they seat you at a place of honor and come to greet you in a similar fashion. No money is given to the guest.
Exquisite sense of beauty and presentation
The table.  At the head of the table is a stack of layered breads showing how many decades of life the host has lived. Each decade represents an alternating decade of happiness or adversity. 

White candies and other white nibble food are interspersed among the layers of bread.  
Shuraai goes all out for her many guests. The Nays on the right and the Farmers were quite the sight in their blue deels
For an elaborate meal, a cut up, cooked sheep is also on the table with the highly prized rump section and the head sitting on top.

The food. You are seated at a table and are offered a lightly salted hot milk drink (kharum) or fermented mare’s milk (aireg) which you sip. You eat something "white" first, rice, a white candy or a piece of dried white cheese or yogurt. 
The salads and side dishes are so tasty that you fill up before the buuz are served
Then you are served a variety of salads and side dishes – all tasty and exquisitely prepared and beautifully presented. 

There is also an additional traditional greeting ritual of passing a snuff bottle to the guests where they ceremonially receive it, sniff it approvingly and hand it back to the host or pass it along to the next guest at the table. This may not be the case in most visits, but in highly ritualized greetings it is done.

As the meal progresses, cold cuts from the sheep are served to the guests. They are surprisingly tasty and delicious, considering Americans lack of familiarity with lamb or mutton.

Gradually hotter and hotter side dishes are put on the table culminated by generous serving of buuz, a specially prepared plate of steamed meat dumplings. You pick up a dumpling with your fingers, bite off a corner and slurped on the juice out of it before eating the dumpling either in one bite or in a few smaller bites. 

Guests are encouraged to eat at least five buuz and are encouraged to eat more and more until the guest definitely says no. No visit is complete until the buuz is served and eaten.

After our meal our hostess, Buted, a famous opera singer in Mongolia, sang for us
Conversation. All this time you engage in pleasant conversation with the family members present. Photo albums are often brought out and shown  during these visits. In some homes, not church families, vodka is offered and toasts are made as the meal draws to a close. 

As you leave the host presents each visitor with a gift – not cheap – in the $5 - $10 range. It is considered ungracious not to accept a host or hostess gift.

Buted invited one of her voice students to perform for us
Repeat…and repeat. It takes time to travel to your next appointment and keep on schedule. The next visit follows the same pattern as the first visit. 

Many foreigners who have three of four visits in a day complain about how stuffed they are but still are expected to have an appetite at the next home. And the next day....and the next day. Even Mongolians find this hard – way too much food – way too many buuz. 

It is like going to two or three thanksgiving dinners on the same day with exquisite plentiful food and watchful eyes on you at each visit. The minute your plate or bowl is empty, the host of hostess is quick to replenish the food on your plate or on the table.
Our favorite tour guide, Jangar, and his family
Each visit leaves a warm glow of friendship and love. It is at once an ordeal and a beautiful, healthy family tradition – both from the guests and hosts point of view.


  1. Wow! I love this post! What an amazing holiday full of tradition and symbolism. It's too bad that you can't enjoy the buuz more because they are so good! I wonder if they take it a little easier on you because of the diabetes. Hope so.

  2. Great picture of Jangar and his family! He is asentertaining fellow.

  3. Good description of Tsagaan Sar. I haven't been so stuffed before or since my Tsagaan Sars in Mongolia.