Festivals

Tsagaan Tsar
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 touch cheeks.

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 Revolution.

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 competitors.

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 (marksmen)

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  Information provided by the Ministry of Tourism. Government of Mongolia.

 

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