04 January 2013

Tsagaan Sar

Our traditional New Year has come and gone. Some of us sat at home watching celebrations from various parts of the globe on TV and tried to keep our eyes open long enough for the clock to say it was midnight somewhere and that a new year had rolled in. Others, no doubt, went to parties and celebrated this year's turnover to the next with friends, libation, snacks and loud noise making. Either way, the past was hopefully behind us and we looked forward to a good future. New Year's resolutions were probably made with the best of intentions and then sometimes broken before the week was out. And that pretty much covered most of the Western World as we know it.

Musician with Horse Head Fiddle
On the other side of Mother Earth, in the vast northern steppes of Asia, is an ancient celebration continued on into present times for their new year. For centuries, the Mongols have gathered in large groups to sing, eat, dance and drink to celebrate an occasion known to them as Tsagaan Sar, or the white moon, the first day of their new year. One of their biggest festivals, it comes during January or February, and is celebrated two months after the first new moon following the winter solstice.

At these large gatherings, small bands of people see relatives again after long absences and also meet other Mongols they had not previously known. Many times, a celebrant met his or her future spouse at one of the Tsagaan Sar celebrations. The traditional greeting at this festival can be roughly translated as "Are you rested?" [NOTE: In the old days, if I were resting on New Year's Day, it was probably because I had been over-served, but then that has been Western tradition.]

Days in advance, the women prepare buuz, a dumpling stuffed with minced beef or minced mutton seasoned with salt and onion or garlic. Some flavor their's with rice or cabbage or various herbs according to personal tastes. The dumplings are then frozen until ready for eating, at which time they are steamed. Other dishes eaten are dairy products, rice with curds or raisins, a grilled side of sheep and a large platter filled with traditional cookies formed into a mountain or pyramid. Airag, fermented mare's milk, is served and gifts are exchanged.

The Communist government once banned Tsagaan Sar and tried to replace it with a Collective Herder's Day, but after the 1990 Democratic Revolution in Mongolia, the Mongols returned to their old holiday and they still celebrate it today.

A Ger, or traditional Mongol residence
Bituun, the name for their day prior to the new year day, is a time for cleaning around the home and for herders to clean their livestock buildings in order to have a clean start. This day is also a time for the immediate family to be together before the large celebration of Tsagaan Sar begins. Candles are burned and three pieces of ice are placed near the doorway so that the horse of the deity who visits each household that night can have something to drink. All old issues for the Mongols are settled and all debts for the year repaid by this day, so as to start out the new year with a clean slate.

My reason for researching the Mongols was that early on I had inserted a little Nogai boy into my Armenian series as a piece of local flavor for some of the many peoples residing on the steppes along the Terek River during the mid-1800's. Then later at a breakfast with my editor in NYC one April, I happened to ask if there was anything she would like to see in my future writing. She immediately replied, "Yes, a story from the POV of the little Nogai boy." Prior to that, the kid only had a few lines of narrative at best in any of the stories. Now, he had to have his own story. Much research soon followed.

SHORT HISTORY: After the death of Genghis Khan, the Mongols separated into two groups: the greater horde also known as the Golden Horde, and the lesser horde also known as the Nogai Horde which carried the name of their general. Now you know where the name Nogai came from.

Anyway, this once-minor character, the little Nogai boy, soon ended up with his own story. Being an orphan on the frontier, he needed to be tough, so I named him Timur, the old Turkish word for iron. The editor bought this story and it became a Derringer Nominee in 2011. Well, there's your history lesson on Mongol culture and one of the characters in my Armenian series.

Hope all of you have an excellent and prosperous new year.


  1. Interesting post, R.T., with a nice wrap to use of that info in your writing.

  2. Well, I enjoyed that history lesson, R.T.--fascinating stuff.

  3. Have you included some of their interesting music in your stories? Those horse head fiddles make an interesting sound.

  4. Thanks for the info about Mongolian New Year's! Probably the best novel about 13th century Mongol life is Cecelia Holland's "Until the Sun Falls", written from the POV of Psin, a Mongol General sent to scout Eastern Europe for the upcoming invasion. I recommend it to EVERYONE, (1) because it's very good and (2) there just aren't very many novels written from the Mongol POV out there.

    Music - Modern Mongolian hip-hop (sort of) - Black Rose, "Seal of Sky":
    sort of Mongol, but with great pictures - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oOSiuZqWum0 and


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