Although winter is long in Mongolia and it may be very cold in March
and April, it is an accepted practice to mark the advent of Spring in
February. It coincides with the New Year celebrations according to the
oriental lunar calendar. Some researchers believe that the lunar
calendar was invented by the nomadic tribes of Central Asia. Living in
contact with nature and noticing the natural cycles, the nomads had
long organized their life according the lunar phases. Old sources
testify to the existence of the Mongolian lunar calendar with twelve
months in a year to which an extra month was added every four years.
Each month had its own name, for example, Cuckoo, Deer, Flood. Later,
the Tibetans and Chinese rationalised the calendar.
The calendar uses a base system of twelve, with the century consisting
of twelve years, the year of twelve months and the day of 12 hours.
According to Mongol-Tibetan cosmology, the world is built on the
interaction of five elements - iron, earth, fire, water and wood -
whose colours are white, yellow, red, black and blue respectively.
Each year comes five times under the signs of the five elements, thus
making a sixty year cycle. Tsagaan Tsar translates as White Month. The
origins of the name can be related to white symbolising happiness and
purity or the fact that it is the start of the lactating and breeding
periods. The approaching spring brings an abundance of milk and dairy
products. The holiday is dependent on the phases of the moon and falls
anywhere between the end of January and early March.
Families start preparing for the holiday at least a month in advance.
First of all there is a tradition to prepare plenty of gifts and food.
Gers, sheds and pens should be cleaned out. Every Mongol family makes
hundreds of Buutz and makes or buys new clothes. According to custom,
the fattest sheep should be killed and the lower back and tail boiled
and served on the table for the entire holiday. Tsagaan Tsar
symbolises wealth and prosperity in the family.
The New Year's Eve is called 'Bituun' - the last dinner of the old
year. Beginning at noon, the wife starts cleaning the ger. Everything
must be spotless. Then the table, the centrepiece of celebrations is
laid with several dishes - the boiled sheep's back, a dish with
traditional bread biscuits, a dish of beresee (rice cooked with
butter, sugar and raisins) and a dish with traditional milk products (aruul,
unsalted cheese and cream). All these dishes should be eaten that
evening after the stars have come out. Incense sticks and candles are
lit and strong tea is made. The first drinking bowl is sprinkled to
the four parts of the globe, the second is presented to the host and
then the other guests can drink. The host takes one sip and then
touches the sacrum nine times with his hand. This is the sign for the
hostess to serve tea, first to the oldest and then the children. After
the traditional ceremony which proceeds any meal in Mongolia, the host
begins to cut the lamb sacrum, the carcass is distributed among them.
After that the other above mentioned dishes are served in a sequence.
Incidentally, according to the custom, strong drinks can only by
people older than 40.
The following morning everyone rises bright and early according to
tradition. There are many customs to follow. The first is to greet the
sun; everyone watches the sun rise. Second, in order to have good
health and happiness in the new year, each individual must take their
'first steps of the New Year'. The lunar year of birth and the current
year will dictate which direction you will need to walk. After the
first steps are taken, all family members re-enter their home and
start the Tsagaan Tsar greetings. The oldest member is greeted first
and sits at the northern side of the ger. The next oldest member of
the family then greets him or her and carries a khadag - a piece of
blue silk - across their palms. A cup filled with milk is placed in
the right hand on the silk. The greeting normally said is "Sar shin
saikhan shinelch baina uu?"as the milk and khadag are given to the
oldest member of the family. The younger member of the family has his
or her palms facing upwards and grasps the older one's elbows. The
older member has palms faced down and the arms are above the younger's.
While this is occurring, the two kiss one another on the cheek or
On this day, all family members show their respect and love through
this greeting. After the second oldest member has finished the
greeting, the other family members greet the oldest member. They
continue to greet one another and give gifts. The value of the gift is
not important. A packet of cigarettes and some socks will suffice. The
important thing is consideration. Older people are given khadags and
younger people, sweets. Often each member of the family and guests
will offer their snuff bottles to one another. In the past countryside
residents would honour nature by going to an ovoo - a pile of stones
raised on a hill or mountain top. People would go there with trays of
food and other offerings and the oldest would voice words of gratitude
and praise to the spirit of the mountain and the neighbourhood.
At Tsagaan Tsar, as on other holidays, people sing songs. The host
serves a drink to his guests in turn and he who gets the cup should
rise to his feet and sing a song to be supported by everyone else
present. It is considered impolite to refuse to sing, "to demonstrate
one's talents" as the Mongols say. On the first evening of the New
Year, people also play games. They play khorol - a kind of domino cut
from wood and with pictures of lunar animals and shagai or dice. After
the greetings, the food is placed on the table and the eating and
drinking begins again. The hostess continually cooks, serves and
cleans, with the help of her children, as visitors come and go. The
greetings and gift-giving continue all day and up to the fifteenth day
after Tsagaan Tsar. The holiday is then said to be finished although
in the cities, it is finished a lot earlier.
Naadam & the Three Manly Sports
The sports most popular with the Mongols since ancient times are
wrestling, horse racing and archery. Together they form Eriin Gurvan
Naadam - the three manly sports. The three manly sports make up the
core program of the National Day festivity which has been held
annually for the past two centuries. Earlier, Naadam was often
associated with religious ceremonies (worshipping the spirit of the
mountains, the rocks and the rivers). At present it is a national
holiday held 11-13th July each year to commemorate the Mongol People's
Revolution. This tradition was set by D.Sukhbaatar, the founder of the
people's state in 1922, when competitions in national types of sport
were held to commemorate the first anniversary of the People's
On July 11 local competitions are also held in some Aimags and Sums to
choose the best sportsmen of that area. Small contests involve over a
hundred athletes and some larger ones have over a thousand. The Naadam
Festival is now a major tourist attraction. The first day starts with
a colourful marching display of soldiers outside Government House in
Sukhbaatar Square, playing brass instruments and being accompanied by
Mongolians dressed in warrior outfits. The opening ceremony takes
place at the Naadam Stadium with more marching by the military,
athletes and monks. A similar closing ceremony takes place on the
second day in the evening. The horse racing is held a small distance
away from the stadium at a place called Yarmag. There is always plenty
to see and it's even possible to pitch a tent along with all the
The traditional style of wrestling has its own long-standing ritual.
Each wrestler wears ornamental knee boots with upturned toes, tight
trunks and an open-fronted, long sleeved vest of silk. With arms
imitating the flight of a bird, he performs the eagle dance, which
symbolises power and invincibility. Supposedly, the vest was changed
in design to an open-fronted vest after a woman was found to have
taken part in the event and won!
By ancient tradition, when a wrestler appears before spectators, his
posture and body movements should resemble those of a lion and his
arms should imitate the flight of the mythical bird of Gharid. It is
difficult to present a likeness of a bird never seen by anyone, but
centuries old wrestling traditions and experienced heralds have come
to help. There are a variety of tricks in Mongol wrestling, which
require not only strength but perfect technique. The most important
things is the utmost plasticity of body movement. The one who forces
his rival to kneel on the ground or to touch it with his elbow is the
winner. At the end, one of the wrestlers passes under the arm of the
other. It is not the loser that passes under the arm of the winner,
but the one with the highest wrestling title.
National wrestling is held in several rounds, depending on the number
of participants, which also determines the duration of the
competition. Before the People's Revolution, 1028 participants used to
take part in the competition, which could last up to 7 days. The
competition attracted fans from many different quarters, sometimes
from the most remote places. Nowadays, during the National Day
celebrations, some 512 contestants usually take part in the wrestling
competition, the winner is known after 9 rounds. Hundreds of wrestlers
from different cities take part in the competition. The losers must
quit the competition, but depending on the number of victories, the
winners are honoured with ancient titles - the winner of the fifth
round gets the title of falcon, of the seventh and eighth rounds
elephant and of the tenth and eleventh rounds, lion. The wrestler who
has two consecutive champion titles is awarded the title of Titan.
Every subsequent victory at the National Naadam will add an epithet
(additional titles to consecutive winners) to his average title, like
Invincible Titan, or Invincible Titan to be remembered by all.
Children start to learn wrestling from an early age and although it
appears as play, the youngsters take their wrestling seriously. The
second element of the Three Manly Sports is horse racing. Originally,
adults took part in this competition, and the most popular contests
were in riding previously unbroken horses. Later, so as to ease the
burden on horses in long-distance races, the adults were replaced by
children aged from six to ten, who quickly master the art of riding.
Horse racing is organised in celebration of the National Day and the
traditional New Year - Tsagaan Tsar - and on other notable occasions.
Horses aged two years and above take part. Mostly there are seven
groups - two, three, four, five and six year olds, stallions and
amblers. Horse training begins two or three months prior to Naadam.
Each rider has his own ways and methods which he is usually reluctant
to reveal. During training the trainer finds the best pastures for the
horse to graze on. Of course, the goal of the trainer is to get the
horse into the best shape possible. For this purpose, the horse is
trained during the hottest time of the day and driven uphill with
sheepskin wrapped around its body. Besides that, the horse has to be
taught not to stop during the race no matter what may happen. Cases
are known of little riders falling off the horse which nevertheless
ran on and was first at the finish.
Depending on the age of the horses, distances vary from 5 to 30 km
(30km was the distance between two postal stations in olden days). All
participants start simultaneously. The winner is honoured with a cup
of airag which he drinks and sprinkles on the head and rear of the
horse. The first five horses are sprinkled with airag; they are
commonly known as Airagyn tav. After the race, some of the best
singers in the country congratulate the best riders and their horses
with their songs of praise and congratulations.
The third element of the national competitions is archery, which has
been perfected over centuries. Sharpshooters used to hit the head of a
marmot from a distance of 100,. Small round leather targets are put at
a distance of 60-100 m from the archers. The archers wear a special
glove on the thumb and index finger of the right hand and wrap the
left arm up to the elbow in soft belts. The arrow has blunt bone
heads. The referees, lined up to the targets, mark each hit. When the
target is hit they raise their hands and move around the spot singing
a shot song of praise. The best archer receives the title of mergen