The Celebration of the White Month: Sagaalgan Comes to Baikal

The Celebration of the White Month: Sagaalgan Comes to Baikal

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Sagaalgan is one of the most traditional, beloved, long-awaited Buryat holidays associated with the beginning of the New Year by the ancient lunar calendar. This year the holiday is celebrated on February 5.

It is believed that this is a celebration of family values, faith in a better future for one’s relatives, good intentions and the beginning of a new life...

When the Main Buryat Holiday Emerged 

The Celebration of the White Month: Sagaalgan Comes to Baikal

It is believed that Sagaalgan is not younger than eight hundred years, and, despite its antiquity, many of its most interesting traditions are still revered on the coast of Baikal.

The origin of the name does not cause any disputes. It is directly related to the Mongolian roots, and means literally “Tsagaan” – white and “sar” – month. That is why in ancient times the pronunciation of the holiday was slightly different – “Tsagan Sar” or “Sagan Sar”. Initially the holiday was meant to celebrate milk, “white” food, valued by the people living in the steppe; and the holiday was celebrated in the autumn. This was explained by the peculiarity of the way life of nomadic cattle-breeding tribes and their perception of the calendar cycle. Autumn was the end of the preparation of dairy stocks, cattle bringing litter, whereas cattle were the main source of subsistence for the Mongols. There was no tradition of an individual birthday. So during this holiday the Mongols (and Buryats) simply added a year of age to each of themselves and to the cattle.

The distribution of Buddhism brought seasonal changes, and since then Sagaalgan has been celebrated at the end of winter. People in Buryatia say that, basically, it is the holiday of adherents of Lamaism, reflecting the ancient traditions and rituals of paganism and shamanism of the Mongolian and Turkic tribes. The fall of the great Mongolian empire returned the Mongols and their holiday back within the borders of their country. The name “white” stopped to be understood literally as something related to dairy food, but has acquired a different universal meaning. For Mongolian peoples white color was and still is a symbol of holiness and purity, the source of happiness and well-being.

In Mongolia, the goddess of Sagaalgan was Baldan Lhamo who flew around the globe early in the morning and noted who woke up to meet Sagaalgan. Those who were sleeping were considered dead, therefore, they did not receive any gifts.

The gradual “advance” of Lamaism to other countries added the holiday to the culture and life of their peoples, including Buryats.

The holiday of the White month,
The holiday of the eternal month.
People appreciate only goodness,
They only believe in light.

The Celebration of the White Month: Sagaalgan Comes to Baikal

The undoubted advantage of the holiday is the fact that it lasts for an entire month. Such a period, of course, was not chosen by accident. The yurts of nomads were situated far from each other. To move from one yurt to another, people sometimes needed more than one day, and then they also had to participate in the festive dinner and rites in each dwelling.

According to the belief of the Buryats, a decent greeting of New Year will help improve the health, longevity of all family members, material wealth. And the main thing is to celebrate Sagaalgan without any offense, envy, anger, only with a pure soul and a heart free from negative emotions.

Thus, during this holiday, people congratulate each other, saying good words, giving presents, exchanging treats. In the olden days, a tradition emerged: people did their best to present gifts of white color: clothes, utensils, fabrics, and tableware.

Sagaalgan is usually conventionally divided into three main periods: the eve, the first day of the New Year, and the rest of the month.

Farewell to the Old Year

People begin to prepare for the holiday long before the day comes. There is a clear understanding that, first of all, they should say a decent goodbye to the old year, which means cleaning up the house and participating in relevant rituals.

In olden days, people finished all household chores to procure firewood and hay, cattle were killed in advance since it was forbidden to do this during the days of Sagaalgan; men were cleaning the existing harnesses or ordered new ones for horses. Women repaired old clothes or sewed new apparels. The entire family was engaged in cleaning the house and yard, each yurt was perfectly clean and tidy by the great holiday. Without any regret, people threw out the old things that were no longer needed, fumigated the house, household, cattle, and all the buildings with incense.

This hard-and-fast rule continues to remain valid even today: the tidiness of the house is evidence of the elevated thoughts. Messy people do not get the mercy of deities.

On the eve of the holiday, some important rituals were performed both at home, among nearest and dearest, as well as in datsans.

Home rituals include:

- A symbolic rite of “breaking” or “opening” of some objects. For example, the lamb bone was traditionally broken down, and the bone marrow was taken out, or a new bottle of milk vodka was opened;

- A ritual of worshipping domestic deities. In front of the images of deities painted on canvases, they lit up a lamp and sticks with incenses made on the basis of fragrant herbs. The following treats were put on trays: dairy products, sweets... Mutton brisket and femur bone were also put there. This kind of meal should stay on the tray for several days;

- The ritual of offering to the Master of Fire. Each member of the family, taking a piece from each festive treat, threw them into the fire. At the same time, it was obligatory to say: “The old year has gone, a new one has come, I am sacrificing mutton brisket. May death and suffering disappear, may happiness and well-being be with us. ”

Only after that, all people sat down at the festive table – the table was supposed to be full of treats. The logic is simple: the more abundant the food on the table is, the better the next year will be;

- Conducting the “Dugzhuuba” ritual in a datsan, this symbolized the purification of all the negative things accumulated during last year. Prior to that, a person needed to wipe his/her entire body with a piece of dough made by himself/herself from water and flour. These so-called “tabalens” had to absorb all the bad things. The next step was to destroy them. After the service held in the yard of the temple, a large cone-shaped fire was built, and the fire had to burn “ the carriers of evil”, then people could find stability, peace, wealth, health...

On the eve of the New Year, people had to leave a festive table being completely satisfied, having tasted all the dishes. And they had to go to bed early so that to happily meet the Sun in the morning, to greet both the Sun and the Eternal Blue Sky.

Before going to bed, pure water was put behind the door (outside the window, on the balcony) for one night. It is believed that the Mistress of the Lower World - Lhamo – is going around the Earth at dawn, recording the living souls (people, animals), using the water as ink.

The First Day of Sagaalgan

On the first day of the New Year, early in the morning, the master of the house should be the first to leave the house. The purpose of this tradition is to pay respect to the Sun by offering the deity gifts from the family. The order of actions is as follows: presenting oneself to the Sun, expressing gratitude for a period that ended successfully; presenting one’s relatives to the Sun and the Eternal Blue Sky, as well as to the spirits worshipped by the person; announcing wishes for the next year; as a rule, these were connected with the well-being of the family and the health of relatives and friends.


Researchers believe that offering sacrifices to the spirit of the locality was obligatory in ancient times. Inhabitants of each yurt built an altar, either from stone or from dry manure, in front of their dwelling at the sunrise on the first morning of the New Year. While lighting incense, all members of the family went around this place, knelt and earnestly prayed. Nowadays, this version of the ritual is not performed; the same can be said about the collective greetings of obo that were performed in olden days (obo is a cult place inhabited by the spirit-patron of the territory). Today men go to the local obo on behalf of the entire family. They build a fire, burn incense, present gifts to local spirits, and say prayers expressing the wishes of all the best.

It is considered that no visits should be paid on the first day of the holiday. It is best to spend this day within the family circle. An obligatory ritual of Sagaalgan was considered exchanging gifts. In this case, we speak about universal human values especially appreciated by the Buryats: respect for the elders, respect for each other, strengthening of the family bonds... This is the essence of the holiday passed from generation to generation. There is a certain order of gift-giving that have been preserved for centuries: the main role is given to the strengthening of the position of the elders. This fact is evidenced by the sequence of the gift-giving. The youngest family members are the first to congratulate others and give them gifts. When the parents accept the congratulations and gifts from the children, they, in their turn, congratulate all their relatives in the order seniority. The gender principle is also taken into account: men (boys) are congratulated first, and women (girls) go after them. The value is given to the idea of the gift, not its value. Proper respect and attention are the most important things.

The gifts themselves have not changed much. Just like earlier, this is a khadak – a kind of scarf, an attribute of special honor for men represented by a piece of silk fabric of white, blue or yellow color. The old men were given lighted pipes filled with the best tobacco. Women were presented kerchiefs, pieces of fabric, tea ... If you were born in a year under the same sign of lunar cycle, then an obligatory gift was the corresponding animal figure made of felt or wood. Small children received sweets and toys, alongside with money. This custom has been preserved until today.

New Year's Festivities

The first three days of the New Year were filled with events most of all. But the rest of the month was also festive. The most important and significant things were considered food and drinks for relatives and visitors.

The Celebration of the White Month: Sagaalgan Comes to Baikal

A meal in the family circle was followed by a continuous visits paid to other’s houses –the guests went from one yurt to the following. Visits to the exquisitely decorated houses formed the so-called public opinion about their owners, their children and relatives. After all, there was a firm belief that the more guests visit the house during the celebration, and the better the festive table is, the more luck the new year will bring. The first guest entering the house was very important for Buryats. Meeting the “first guest” plays a magical role. Preferably, it should be a man, but the “happiness” of a person was considered to be even more significant – we are speaking about such quality as the ability to magically bring happiness to everyone who comes to this person.

We consider it worth paying attention to the special New Year greeting called “zolgoh”. The meaning is as follows: a younger person gives both hands with the palms up to the elder person (or a woman to a man, if they are of the same age), the elder one, in turn, puts his/her hands from above with the palms down, the younger person supports the elder person under the elbows.

Many funny outdoor games are held on the days of the White month. Nowadays you can see old-time entertainment: “heershaakha” (breaking a bone with a fist), singing competitions, an exciting round dance – “yokhor”.

On every day of the holiday Buryats wish only good for themselves and their nearest and dearest. They firmly believe that this year they will be lucky, that happiness and success will come to them.

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