So you might be wondering – why are we celebrating “New Years” in February?
Mongolians have a ceremonial lunar calendar, which is similar to the Chinese lunar calendar. For daily life they use the same calendar as the rest of the world, but the lunar calendar is used throughout the year to identify holidays and also auspicious/lucky days for important events (if you want to buy a house, or get married, or start a new business – you check the calendar first for an auspicious day).
Lunar New Year is the first day of the first month of the new Lunar year. Typically this falls around the 2nd New Moon after the Winter Solstice.
Prior to Christianity in Europe, the West would’ve followed a similar schedule, celebrating the Winter and Summer solstice, and doing a big celebration for the coming of Spring (which the church combined into Easter celebrations – hence bunnies and eggs symbolizing fertility.) I like the idea that “New Year” coincides with the coming of Spring, which always feels like a fresh start, doesn’t it? Makes much more sense than having a fresh start in the middle of winter, right?! Maybe we’d have better luck with our New Years resolutions of starting new healthy habits if they started with longer days and warmer weather … rather than trying to motivate to go to the gym at 6AM in the dead of winter in the dark!! But I digress…
New Years Eve – Cleaning Out the Old
New Years Eve in Mongolia is called “Bituun”, and it’s almost as important as New Years Day itself. The goal on New Years Eve is to ‘clear out the old.’ Everything is cleaned. You clean your house or car. The city streets are swept. You shower and get a haircut. Everything is cleaned out to purge the remnants of the previous year.
We spent that evening at Turuu’s house in Ulan Baatur, celebrating with his family. We got to try on the “Deels” (traditional robes) that we’d wear for the rest of the trip, and also learn the appropriate greetings and etiquette (like how to accept a snuff bottle! A life skill I’d never had to learn before now…)
Greeting the New Years Sunrise
We woke up before sunrise, to take part in the traditional New Years Day sunrise greeting. Typically the male head of household does this, to bring good luck to his home for the year. So it was us, and a whole bunch of Mongolian men on top of this freezing cold hill in the dark.
The greeting is done at an Ovoo, which is a sacred rock formation where the Mongolians make offerings and do rituals.
Again there are two parts – sending out the old, and welcoming in the new.
We brought several offerings with us: milk, rice, and juniper.
First, while it’s still dark, you need to send out the old. So everyone takes a handful of rice and walks 3 times clockwise around the Ovoo, sprinkling rice and either chanting mantras (Mongolians) or just thinking positive, thankful thoughts about the previous year (us).
Then, you throw ladles of milk, for good luck. This seems to be a regular good luck wish in Mongolia, as Turuu’s mother also threw milk after us as we were departing from her house.
Then you wait for sunrise.
OMG it was SO SO SO SO SO cold. Probably the coldest temperatures we’ve encountered yet on our trip. Zak’s beard froze, and so did my eyelashes!
As the sun rises, all the Mongolian men turn towards it, and suddenly someone will start a chant – they all throw their arms in the air and chant to welcome the sun. It was a really moving experience.
Then once the sun is up, you do a final walk clockwise around the Ovoo, to bring in good wishes for the year.
Then – back home to the warmth!
Your First Steps
The next New Years Ritual happens with the entire family at home. Everyone must take his or her “first steps” of the new year, in the right direction.
A Mongolian Lunar calendar book is consulted, and based on your birth year and gender, there are specific directions you’re supposed to walk in. So I had to walk South, then West, then diagonally Northeast. Zak had to walk in a square (easy!), South, West, North, East.
I don’t have pictures of this because it was so quick – we just each ran outside and took our first steps, and came back in.
Then Greetings + Eating!
Finally it’s time for the traditional scarf Hadag greeting (which Zak already explained in this post), exchanging gifts … and then time to eat!
This whole New Years experience was so cool because we were just participating along with the Mongolians. It wasn’t a ‘tourist’ activity and we didn’t see a single other Westerner the entire time. We were just part of the family.
If 2018 is particularly lucky for us, we might have to start taking New Years rituals more seriously in our own lives!
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as we travel from Hong Kong to London by train.