Mongolia’s two biggest national
holidays are the lunar new year celebration Tsagaan Sar and Naadam sports
festival. While Naadam is always held on 11-12 July, Tsagaa nSar dates vary, as
it reflects the irregular lunar calendar cycles. Both holidays are celebrated
nationwide. Mongolians dress in their most elegant deels and the best-known wrestlers
acqiare super star stauts. Mongolians are intensely proud of both holidays,
which also offer interested foreigners the opportunity to see the nation
celebrate in style.
The name means white and celebrates
the passing of winter and beginning of spring. Tsagaan Sar was originally an
end of summer festival, but once again it was Chinggis Khan who changed things,
moving the event to the end of winter in 1216. The Mongolian lunar calendar
uses five cycles of twelve years, each cycle being named after an element
(earth, water, fire, iron and wind) and each year after one of twelve animals.
The Lunar calendar doesn’t operate within European twelve-month system and
hence Lunar New Year dates change every year. The festival is celebrated at the
end of January or beginning of February and officially lasts three days.
The best place to celebrate Tsagaan Sar is in the countryside, where it is a
real demonstration of Mongolia’s traditional customs and culture. People greet
each other in a unique way, young people cross their hands under the hands of
older people and say Amar baina uu, which is the traditional new year greeting
that means how are you.
During Tsagaan Sar, almost everyone visits everyone, whom they know or who
their realtives are. Much of the festival involves sitting round the ger stove
passing food and drink backwards and forwards, always using right hand to
accept food or alcohol. Visitors are given gifts in almost every ger they
visit. In Ulaanbaatar Tsagaan Sar is a shorter holiday, but with the same
hospitality, visiting schedule, food and drink.
This annual sports festival Naadam
is the most famous celebration across the country. It features the three manly
sports: wrestling, archery and horse racing. Naadam is celebrated across the
country and every town and village will hold its own wrestling, archery and
horse racing contests. The official Naadam opening ceremony in Ulaanbaatar is
quite spectacular. Riders dress as Chinggis Khan’s entourage lead the huge
procession around the Naadam stadium, which features hundreds of adults and
children dressed in costumes representing all Mongolia’s ethic groups. In
Ulaanbaatar, wrestling takes place in the main Naadam stadium. Archery
competitions are outside the stadium everywhere, while the famous, perilous
horse races take place ourside the city.
Wrestling is the most national and
popular of all Mongol sports. It is highlight of the Three Games of Men.
Hinstorians claim that Mongol-style wrestling originated some seven thousand
years ago. The technique and ritual of Mongolian wrestling is distinctly
There are no weight categories or age limits in Mongolians national wrestling.
The wrestlers wear heavy boots (gutuls), a very small tight-fitting loin cloth
(known as zodog and shuudag), a pair of sleeves which meet across the back of
the shoulders, resembling a tiny vestige of a jacket, and a pointed cap of
velvet. The contestants come out on the leaping and dancing flapping their arms
in imitation of an eagle. Each wrestler has his attndant herald. The aim of the
sport is to knock your opponent off balance and throw him down, making him
touch the ground with his elbow and knee. The loser walks under the raised arms
of the winner in a sign of respect, and unties his vest, after wich the victor,
again leaping and dancing, takes a turn round the flag in the center of the
field. The victor is a awarded symbolic prizes – biscuits and aaruul, or dried
curds; once he has tasted these, he offers them to his seconds and to spectators.
Traditionally, either one thousand and twenty-four or five hundred and twelve
wrestlers participate in the contest. At the national Naadam held in
Ulaanbaatar, nine rounds are held. Those who lose in one round are eliminated
from further rounds.
A wrestler who beats five opponents in a Naadam is awarded the title of
"Falcon”; one who wins seven rounds is given title "Elephant”. A wrestler
become a champion by winning nine rounds and is given the title of "Lion”, and
if he wins two years in row, he is called "Giant”. If a wrestler become a
third-time champion at the Naadam, the attribute "Nation-wide” is added to his
title, and the fourth time, he is styled "Invincible”.
The winners of the tournament receive honorary titles and are also awarded various
souvenirs. But for them, the main award is the truly nation-wide popularity and
fame that they gain.
This sport is also centuries old,
dating back to the Bronze Age. The horses for the Naadam races are selected a
month before the big day. They are then taken to an abequate pasture separate
from the herd and trained. Race-horses are divided into several age groups:
two, three, four anf five years old; over five years or adult horses; and
stallions. The riders are aged from 5 to 12. Mongolian children of these ages
are good riders, as both boys and girls have been riding since infancy. As the
popular saying goes, "The nomad is born in the saddle”.
Small saddles are made especially for children, but they usually prefer to ride
without them. They are not only super riders, but also skillful tacticians.
They know how to hold the horse back so it has enough strength to last the
entire distance of the race. Competitions are not held on special racetracks,
but right across the steppe, where riders are confronted with various abstacles
such as rivers, ravines and hills. The distance varies according to the ages of
the horses. Between 15 and 35 km. The riders are dressed in bright, colorful
and comfortable cloths. On theirbacks are various symbolic pictures. Symbolic
ornaments and designs also embellish the horse-cloth. The most exciting moments
are the start and the finish. Before the beginning of the contest the young
horseman ride round the starting point three times yelling the ancient call, "Giingi!”,
a kind of war-cry. When all the horses step behind the boundary line, the
starting command is given and the riders surge forward, setting in motion the
The winning riders do a full circuit of the stadium, each accopanied by a herald.
The winning horse receives the honorary title "forehead of Ten Thousand Race
Horses” and the five runners-up are awarded with prizes. They are popularly
called the "Airag Five”. In accordance with tradition, the riders on the
winning horses do three laps of honor, then ride up to the grandstand, and each
child is offered a large bowl of airag-fermented mare’s milk-from wich he
drinks and then pours some on the rump of his horse. The herald in turn, chants
in poem-form the virtues of the horse its rider and owner.
But there is also an interesting tradition in connection with the losers. Honor
and praise of the winners of the race is to be expected; but the losers are
also rewarded and honored. After the award ceremony for the victors, the racer
who came in last is led up to the main stand with his young rider. But the
spectators do not make fun of him. Instead they shout encouragement and try to
give him confidence in himself. The national story-teller recites a special ode
to the loser. The ode encourage him with words expressing faith in his future
Ample information about archery can
be found in leterary and historical documents of the 13th century and even
before. It is an ancient sport of the Mongols which can be traced back to as early
as 300-200 BC. According to historians, archery contests began in the 11th
The Mongols use a compound bow, built up of layers of horn, sinew, bark and
wood. When unstrung it is not straight, but curved. Archery in more archaic and
ritualistic than other sports and posture.
The target consists of a row several meters across, of small woven leather
rings, some painted red, which are laid out laterally on the ground, the
openings face upwards, providing challenging exercise in trajectory for the
archers. In olden times, women did not participate in the contest, but in the
last few decades they have started to do so. The distance is about 75 m for men
and 60 m for women. Men shoot about 40 arrows and must score not less than 15
points and women shoot 20 arrows and must score at least 13 point using the
same bow as the men.
When the arrow hits the target, a group of people standing near the target,
acting as judges, raise the cry "Uukhai!” and make signs with their hands to
indicate the result. The one who score the most points is the winner and the
title of Mergen (Supermarksman) is bestowed on him or her.
ceremonies vary according to ethnic group the bride and the groom belong. But
all wedding have to make palce on an auspicious d ay, a advised by a local
lama. This is done in consultation with the traditional lunar calendar. Before
the wedding date is negotiated relatives of the groom arrive at the brides home
(or ger) with a mass of presents. Historically the main presents were livestock
and in the countryside these traditions have continued. The number of livestock
given depends on the wealth of the groom’s family, but an odd number of animals
have to be presented to the bride’s relatives (e.g. 7, 9 or11). The bride’s
father is given special presents (including a pot of glue) symbolizing the
strength of the future relationship between his daughter and her new husband.
If the bride’s parents accept all these gifts, they are also agreeing to the
wedding. Both sides then discuss the date of the ceremony and consider the
couple now formally engaged.
In the countryside a groom-to-be prepares his new ger with the assistance of
his parents. The future bride’s responsibilities are buying cooking pots and
cleaning materials, preparing the stove in the new ger the layer of felt on the
ger ceiling. Tasks are clearly defined. The man alsways takes care of the walls
and wooden furniture. On the day of the wedding ceremony the groom visits the
bridal family with an elderly, respected member of the local community. When
the two men arrive at the in-laws door, they will find it locked and have to
persuade the family to open the door by uttering wise, appreasing words. Once
they have charmed their way in they are provided with Mongolian arkhi and meat,
at they approach the new bride. Phrases such as "the deer hunter (husband) is
ours and the sable sewer (wife) is yours. We hold both their fates our hands
and tsese fates have to be marged” are spoken.
The bride, dressed in her most elegant deel, follows the groom and his
companion to her new home, followed by her own closest friends. The party
arrive on horse back and a carpet is rolled from the ger entance to welcome
them. The bride traditionally enters her new ger by noon and a huge meal
starts, with the first toast being offered to the father of the groom. For the
rest of the day the two families, their relatives and friends sing, eat and
drink to celebrate the wedding, all sit around a large ceremonial table.
The next morning the new bride has to open the smoke holes of her own ger and
the ger belonging to her new parents in-law. Three days later her pwn parents
visit the new couple.
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