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Family, Dumplings, and Jesus? Christians Navigate Mongolian New Year

Before college students travel home to celebrate Tsagaan Sar, Mongolia’s Lunar New Year, Dagdansengee Delgersaikhan, the general secretary of the student ministry IFES in Mongolia, discusses with the students how to approach the country’s biggest holiday with their new Christian faith.

It’s good to respect your parents, Delgersaikhan tells them, but there are certain rituals steeped in Buddhism and shamanism that they can no longer take part in, such as bowing to family idols or walking in a certain direction for good luck. She guides them on how to keep good relationships with their family while kindly explaining that, because they are Christians, they can no longer join in on some of the traditions.

Delgersaikhan speaks from experience. She remembers 20 years ago when she approached her father nervously on the morning of Tsagaan Sar and told him that she wouldn’t be joining the rest of the family as they went out to perform prayers. Instead, she would stay home and make them a hot pot of milk tea for when they returned home. He agreed.

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For Christians in the majority Buddhist country, celebrating Tsagaan Sar—which begins Saturday—looks different from before they came to faith. Some Christians do not engage in the holiday at all because of its spiritual roots, while others find ways to embrace the positive aspects of spending time with family and respecting elders while refraining from practices that conflict with their faith.

The gathering of so many people also makes it “a good time to testify about Jesus,” Delgersaikhan said. Conversations about faith can pop up over preparing buuz, steamed meat dumplings, or during visits to the homes of relatives.

“We encourage them that this is a good time to testify about ourselves, about Jesus,” she said. “Go home and serve them and show them good hospitality, shock them and they will say, ‘Why is he so hospitable?’ And after that share the gospel.”

Gathering with family and seeking good luck

Tsagaan Sar, which means “white moon,” is the biggest holiday in Mongolia, marking the end of Mongolia’s long winter—which can reach −20 degrees F (−28 degrees C)—and the beginning of spring. While Genghis Khan decreed the holiday in the 13th century, it wasn’t until the 17th century that Buddhist leaders began to incorporate Buddhist elements into Tsagaan Sar. When Communism took over Mongolia in 1924, leaders prohibited the holiday as it was viewed as religious. Yet many Mongolians continued to celebrate it quietly, said Bolortuya Damdinjav of the Mongolian Evangelical Alliance. When democracy came in the 1990s, Mongolians began to celebrate Lunar New Year widely again.

“Most Christians view it as a cultural or traditional holiday,” said Damdinjav, “We eliminated the religious parts but we still see it as a time to meet our family and show respect for that.”

Families start preparing for Tsagaan Sar weeks in advance, cleaning the house, buying ingredients, and making and freezing hundreds of buuz for the guests who will visit during the three days of Tsagaan Sar. The day before the New Year is known as Bituun, meaning “to close down,” when people clean the house, repay debts, and feast to end the year with a full belly. They light candles to represent Buddha’s enlightenment and leave ice on the door of their homes, as they believe the local diety Baldanlkham visits every family on a mule, and the ice gives the mule something to drink.

The next day, families dress up in traditional Mongolian clothes, known as a deel (which resembles a tunic), and the matriarch brews milk tea. The first cup is offered to the gods. They use their zodiac sign to determine which direction they should step out of their homes on the morning of New Year’s day in order to bring good fortune. Some Mongolians climb to the mountaintop to view the first sunrise of the year and wish for good luck.

Mongolian families then visit their grandparents or oldest living relatives. At each home, the younger people greet their elders by grasping their elbows and asking, “Are you living peacefully?” and the elders kiss both their cheeks. They give gifts of money while children receive toys and play games. They eat buuz and ul boov pastries stacked in an odd number of tiers to signify good luck, as well as cooked lamb hide, dairy products, and candies. Conversations focus on happy topics to bring more good things in the new year.

Families then move on to visit other relatives and neighbors for the next three days. People also visit the temple and ask for a fortune from the lama, set out food for household idols, and perform prayers.

Celebrating Tsagaan Sar as Christians

When Amaraa Jargalsaikhan became a Christian, friends and family asked, How could you become a Christian? If you’re a Christian you will lose all your identity … you cannot celebrate Tsagaan Sar! Yet Jargalsaikhan sees Tsagaan Sar as a unique time to share the gospel.

Formerly one of the pastors at Amid Ug (Living Water) Christian Church in Ulaanbaatar, the largest church in Mongolia, he noted that sometimes non-Christians didn’t want a visit from a pastor. Yet on Tsagaan Sar, everyone was welcomed into the home. When he sat in the homes of relatives and neighbors and they caught up on their lives, he talked about his “reason for becoming a Christian and the differences [between Christianity from Buddhism] and the good things about it.” From these conversations on Tsagaan Sar, several family members ended up visiting Jargalsaikhan’s church.

“I think it’s a good time to share the gospel,” Jargalsaikhan said. “We [tried] not to ruin the mood, because some people get offended if you say something about a different religion.”

When Tsagaan Sar fell on a Sunday, Jargalsaikhan’s church continued to hold services even as they found that attendance—which typically numbered 1,000 across three services—dropped significantly. The pastors took turns leading different services so that they all had an opportunity to visit relatives. Often from the pulpit, Jargalsaikhan would preach about how Tsagaan Sar was an opportunity to share the gospel and would tell others how God had worked in their lives.

Today, Jargalsaikhan and his family live in Chicago, where he is ministering at Antioch Mongolian Christian Church. While he and his family don’t have relatives to visit, they’ll still put on the traditional deel, cook buuz and ul boov, and video chat with his parents back in Mongolia. Then they visit the members of their church, especially the older congregants—though in America they have to ask to come over, unlike in Mongolia, where people show up unannounced.

Standing firm while respecting parents

Delgersaikhan of IFES also noted that Tsagaan Sar is a prime opportunity for Christians to speak about their faith, because people are often respectful toward one another during the holiday and because they see so many friends and family. Some Christian families will give their guests small Bibles or stationary sets with Bible verses. There’s also an opportunity to do “hospitality for them very well and to be kind … to share personal testimonies.” She noted that, nowadays, some people no longer see the holiday as a way to serve one another, or they only use Tsagaan Sar as a way to show off their wealth. Christians can be different by being humble.

Before students leave for the holidays, IFES also holds a Tsagaan Sar celebration on campus. Christian students invite their friends to come dressed in deels to eat, drink, play games, and learn about the Christian faith. She reminds the IFES students that there will be many rituals they should no longer participate in. For instance, they shouldn’t go with their families to climb the mountain to see the sun rising and pray for blessings. “Our God, we can pray to him anywhere, anytime, not just New Year morning,” she reminds them.

Some of the Christian students who return home to the countryside for the New Year—especially in areas where Buddhism still has a very strong hold—find themselves facing stronger pressures to join in on the religious rituals. She noted that when they come back from break, some are glad because they were able to refuse to participate, but others are sad because they could not. If parents are very insistent that they must join them in some of the religious rituals, Delgersaikhan tells them they can pray to God silently.

Yet in most cases, she’s found that young Christians these days face less backlash than those a generation before. She said that students today are more honest and open in sharing with their parents about their conversion and their spiritual journey, and many parents are not upset that their children don’t want to partake in the rituals. Sometimes parents also see positive changes in their children’s behavior—such as giving up smoking, drinking, or cursing—so they have a more positive view of Christianity.

“In my time, we were very scared [of] our parents, but now students are very open to share what they believe in,” Delgersaikhan said. “Some countryside people say it’s a really good thing.”

Talking about Jesus while wrapping buuz

Bolortuya Damdinjav of the Mongolian Evangelical Alliance said her favorite memory of Tsagaan Sar while growing up was all the time spent with her family members, whether it was preparing for the holiday by cleaning and making buuz or visiting older relatives and meeting with extended family that she rarely sees.

Damdinjav, along with her mother and sister, became Christians in 1993 a few months before Tsagaan Sar, and she remembers that holiday being a big step of courage. The day before the New Year, her grandma, who was staying with them, fell very ill, so the family started praying for her. At the time, they still had some idols in their home, yet Damdinjav felt God telling her to get rid of the idols and the other religious items in the house. She told her mother, and the two of them threw the items into the fire.

The next day, her grandmother started feeling better. When her other grandmother and relatives came to visit, they immediately went to where the idols had stood to show respect, but were shocked to find nothing there. Damdinjav feared that they would be angry, but instead they didn’t say anything about it; they sat and ate with them, and then they left. They never brought it up again.

“In some families, [the removal of idols] can be a big debate, and people could argue with each other,” she noted. “But somehow, I think God protected us, and since then, our house has been clean, free [of idols].”

Damdinjav has found that the best time to talk about the gospel with family is while wrapping buuz. Everybody is relaxed and chatting to pass the time as they make hundreds of tasty dumplings. During those conversations, she’s had the opportunity to tell her relatives why she believes in Jesus, why she reads the Bible, and what Christianity is all about.

“So I believe we’re just planting seeds whenever we have an opportunity to share about our faith.”




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