“If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”
– Sir Isaac Newton, 1675
There is a Mongolian myth about why the mouse came to symbolize the first sign of the Eastern zodiac. Long ago, a great competition amongst animals took place. Those who first saw the sunrise were to earn a prestigious title in the Zodiac. The little mouse wanted to participate too. But his competitors were large and strong. And there was no way he could win the race without some help. So, he asked the giant camel for support. The kind-hearted camel took pity on the tiny mouse and let him climb up on his hump. Together, they stood still in the dark, waiting patiently for the sun to rise. Gradually, the dawn brought a new day, and with it, a glimmering golden light that steadily began to hem the horizon. The quick little mouse sprang up on his hind legs, and then, perched on top of the camel’s hump, he saw the rays of the rising sun first. That is how, through the generosity of the noble camel, the mouse came to symbolize the first sign of the Eastern zodiac.
Many ancient cultures throughout the world have invented systems to organize the days and the cycles and rhythms of nature. Most of them have their own myths and traditions related to their timekeepers’ schedules. Some countries celebrate the New Year according to the solar (today predominantly the Gregorian) calendar. Other countries, many of which are also in Asia and the Middle East, celebrate the New Year according to the lunar calendar. Still others welcome the celebration of both.
Origin and the Event
As for the origin of the Mongolian traditional calendar, experts hold differing opinions. Upon brief examination, the Tibetan lunar calendar seems to be the closest source. But the question of exactly when, how or if the current lunar calendar was adopted, and what system was used prior to its acceptance, remains a subject of lively debate amongst historians, astronomers and religious leaders. Nevertheless, Friday, February 12, 2021 will be the beginning of the 35th year of the 17th sixty-year-cycle in Mongolia. And Mongolians would have celebrated this new year of the Ox during a nationwide holiday called “Tsagaan Sar,” or White Moon.
Due to the global pandemic, however, official celebrations have been restricted to small circles since last year. This limitation is particularly hard on the elderly that live far away from their children because it is the one holiday when family members from near and far gather to pay respects to them. Contrarily, those of us who belong to the younger category might admit, with a bit of reluctance, that the restriction comes as a relief. The plethora of rules, the elaborate etiquette, the chaos of preparations, and the intricate dance around ego-shells with a diversity of relatives in various phases of life can all sometimes have the tendency to create more stress rather than invigoration.
Reflection on the Meaning
Whether advantageous or unfavorable, Mongolia’s current quarantine restrictions around national holiday celebrations present an opportunity to reflect on the meaning of Tsagaan Sar. A unique lithograph from the permanent collection of the Mongolian National Modern Art Gallery in Ulaanbaatar titled, “The National Holiday Tsagaan Sar” (1977) by Ts. Dagvanyam can be helpful.
In an eventful scene, the artist presents a Tsagaan Sar morning in a countryside cooperative. Brown, white, and red colors prevail. They accentuate the hustle and bustle of the morning for herders, industriously putting out their cattle and sheep to graze on pasture for the day. Various modes of transport: horses, yak carts, camels, a tractor, and a motorcycle, protrude from the edges of the composition. There is a feisty yak, tied to a cart with canisters, impatiently raising his short fluffy tail while bowing his head and spectacular horns, wanting to get a move on. Behind him, a child with his new toy-airplane and a wand with a star in his hand is joyfully skipping toward his mother, who is placing freshly made traditional buuz (Mongolian dish similar to steamed dumplings) on top of the roof of her ger (Mongolian home) to freeze. At the center of the busy movement, two neighboring families embrace in a traditional Tsagaan Sar greeting (zolgokh yos). On the left side of the composition, a guest is arriving in his red new deel (Mongolian clothing) and is tying his finest horse to a post before going over to greet his hosts…
Naming this picture, “The National Holiday Tsagaan Sar,” would have been a risky move in 1977. Until 1988, the nationwide celebration of Tsagaan Sar as an official holiday was forbidden. Since 1932, the government had proclaimed Tsagaan Sar a “feudal” ritual perpetuated by religious leaders who wished to continue the “enslavement” of the masses. On January 26, 1952, when Mongolia’s leader, Marshall Kh.Choibalsan, passed away, Tsagaan Sar became a national day of mourning. Then in 1960, the proclamation of the official holiday of herders’ cooperatives began to allow only people in the countryside to celebrate Tsagaan Sar. Since the 1990’s democratic revolution, Tsagaan Sar, once again became an official holiday, celebrated throughout Mongolia. And these days, on Tsagaan Sar’s eve, or Bituun, the nation can watch the president’s official greetings on television.
Bituun and New Beginning
In a way, Bituun is a farewell party for the old year. So, to the extent possible, Mongols strive to complete old projects, settle disputes or any debts, wrap up deals or repairs, and clean up old properties etc. Even closing the curtains at home could do the trick. Traditional buuz and dumplings symbolize the successful completion of a year. And no guest is allowed to leave the house hungry or dissatisfied for the sake of good luck for all. Children play traditional games that also represent the end of a good year, and the winners would be considered particularly lucky next year. Many families place ice cubes on the roof of their ger to water the horse of the swift goddess of luck, Baldanlkham, as she passes by in the sky and blesses everyone at the moment when New Year begins.
On Shiniin Negen, or the first day of the New Year, to rise with the sun and go on a refreshing walk in the direction best suited for one’s personal zodiac sign (for the details, Mongols consult Buddhist astrologers and calendars beforehand) is a ritual that increases the chances of success in the entire year. After this ritual, it is time for everyone to change into their best deels and go out to greet each other (zolgokh), starting with the eldest family member. With best wishes for the New Year, people give and receive symbolic presents of appreciation and respect. The color white is associated with peace, goodwill and new beginnings in Mongolia. Therefore, a New Year’s meal begins and ends with sweetened rice with raisins or any dairy snack (tsagaan idee) one prefers.
Purpose and Deeper Origin
The practical purpose of Tsagaan Sar is to meet and reacquaint with one’s old and new relatives. But more importantly, it is a tradition inherited from the Mongolian nomadic culture. It plays a significant role in passing on history to future generations.
Long ago, Mongols used to celebrate the Lunar New Year in autumn when livestock was abundant and harvest, plentiful. Then, in the spring of 1206, after having successfully united the disparate tribes of the Central Asian steppe, Temuujin was conferred the title of Chinggis Khaan at the council of chieftains and became the head of a new nation of Mongols. The birth of a nation coincided with the first day of spring of the Tiger month in the Tiger year. It was hailed as an auspicious sign by shamans. On that day, Chinggis Khaan is known to have pardoned all convicts, to give a chance for everyone to begin a new chapter in history from a clean slate. Chinggis Khaan also paid respects to the eldest members of his nation by sending them generous presents. Thus, he acknowledged the priceless contribution and sacrifice of those who came before him.
In Guillaume de Rubrouck’s account, Claude and René Kappler noted that in 1254, the New Year’s took place on January 21st. And in Marco Polo’s travels, it is described how Chinggis Khaan’s grandson, Khubilai Khaan carried on the tradition of New Year’s celebrations.
Exactly what system was used to organize the time and dates prior to the current lunar calendar in Mongolia remains to be agreed upon. But today, the celebration of the Lunar New Year in Mongolia continues to symbolize, in addition to the birthday of the Mongol nation, the kind union of families, the forgiveness for old wrongs, and the gratitude to those who once offered us their shoulder to lean on.
May the New Year of the tenacious White Ox be a bullish one for you!
1) Burmaa, Ch. and Enkhjargal, D. Монгол Түмний Баяр Цагаан Сар. Ulaanbaatar: Empathy, 2017.
2) Choimaa, Sh. Монгол Ёс Заншил, Уламжлалт Ухаанаа Заан Сургагч Нарт Тус Дэм. Ulaanbaatar: Soyombo Press, 2015.
3) Kappler, Claude-Claire et René. Guillaume de Rubrouck, Envoyé de Saint Louis: Voyage dans l’Empire mongol (1253-1255). Paris: Payot, 1985. (Chp. 35)
4) Mongolian National Modern Art Gallery. Selected Works from MNMAG’s Collections. China: ICECE, 2008.
5) Rinchen, B. “Цагаан Сар.” Бямбын Ренчин, Vol. 5. Ulaanbaatar : Nepko Publishing, 2018.
6) Rustichello of Pisa. The Travels of Marco Polo, Vol. 1. Scotland: Yule-Cordier, 1902. (Book 2, Chp. 14)
7) Turmunkh, G. “Цагаан сарыг тэмдэглэхэд учир бий.” Tsahim-toli, February 04, 2016, http://www.tsahim-toli.mn/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=1601:tsagaan-sariig-temdeglehed-uchir-bii&catid=42:soyol&Itemid=401.
8) Tibet House Us. “Tibetan Calendar.” Date accessed: January 25, 2021. https://tibethouse.us/tibetan-calendar/.
Source: UB Post newspaper