The White Month holiday (Sagaalgan), emerged from nomadic culture on the steppes of Mongolia. Originally it was celebrated in autumn, when the production of so many milk-based foods which saw the nomads through the rigors of winter, drew to a close. White Month therefore features “White foods”, which are of course milk based. These foods include: Airag – fermented mares milk, YUM! Salamat – sour cream mixed with flour and fried. It is to die for! Sour cream, cottage cheese, cheese similar to Brinza, and Tarasoon, “milk vodka” all fall into the white food group. You must not forget Buuz, the crowning culinary treat in Buryat culture.
With the influence of Buddhism waxing in the 1700’s among the peoples of the steppe, the holiday was moved to the first month of the Lunar Year. Sagaalgan starts on a different date every year depending on when the first new moon of the year falls, which makes it a “nomadic holiday” on the calendar. It can start anytime beginning in mid-January to roughly mid-March.
Because of the change, Sagaalgan is now the celebration of the lunar New Year. The ideas of a clean start, and cleansing oneself from the sins of the last year fit in nicely with the idea of White Month. White itself is a “color” that represents peace and good fortune in the family according to Buryat belief. So turning from sins to a clean start should bring peace and a better future to the family.
On the evening before Lunar New Year begins, people gather at their local temple for the ritual of Dugzhooba, (Дугжууба) or, the “Cleansing Fire”. This event will make quite an impression on any person who manages to wait out the cold to see all the sins of last year burn in a bonfire. Through out the day leading up to the lighting of the fire, people visit the temple to pray and throw bags of dough into the bonfire. The dough is mixed at home and rolled over the body to collect the sins of the last year. This year while watching people approach the fire, I noticed several take dough out of their purse or pocket, and dab off any uncleanliness or sin they may have collected on their feet on the way to the temple. They then cast it amongst the straw and wood to be burned later.
Visiting family is a vital part of White Month. Buryats value their family connections. Relatives that people in the west would consider distant, are close relatives to the Buryats. Much of White Month, which truly is a month long celebration, is spent visiting relatives. Gifts are exchanged and the prerequisite white foods are set upon tables across the Buryat homeland. Laughter abounds at the table as families catch-up, feast and admire any new babies who have made their appearance. Cup after cup of tea disappears in between toasts to the New Year and health of the family. And just when you think everyone has had their fill, another round of eating and toasting begins! (And then, yet another!)