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Customs of Mongolia

Marriage and Family

Traditionally, marriages were arranged between two families, but now individuals make their own decisions. Marriage usually takes place when people are between the ages of 18 and 25. In cities, marriage ceremonies usually take place in “wedding palaces.” Afterward, many young couples go to a Buddhist monk to have their future predicted. A large feast is then held for as many relatives and friends as the new couple’s families can afford to feed. In rural areas, the couple then moves into a home provided by the husband’s family. In urban areas, new couples often have trouble finding an apartment. When a wedding takes place, Mongolian families traditionally exchange gifts; the groom’s family usually gives livestock while the bride’s family offers jewelry and clothing.

In rural areas, most Mongols live in nuclear families, although elderly parents live with the family of their youngest son (or daughter if there are no sons). That son inherits the family home and what is left of the herd after older sons have received equal shares. Men take care of herding and slaughtering, while women handle milking and food preparation. Older children care for younger siblings. Grandparents are treated with great respect because of their wisdom and life experience, the benefits of which they pass on to their grandchildren. The father is head of the family, but the mother is responsible for household affairs. In urban areas, both spouses generally work outside the home. Young families in urban areas usually have only one or two children; rural families are generally quite a bit larger.

Most rural families live in a ger, which is a tent with a four- or five-piece wooden lattice, a roof frame, and a south-facing door. Its average size is about 6 meters (about 18 feet) in diameter. The ger is covered with one or more layers of sheep-wool felt and a white cloth. It is easy to erect and dismantle, and is warm in cold seasons. Nomadic extended families often live in a camp of several gerööd (the plural of ger). In urban areas, families live either in high-rise apartments or in gerööd, which usually have a surrounding fence and a storage shed. A ger in or near a city will have electricity, but not a heating system or running water. Owing to a housing shortage, three generations often share a small apartment, with parents sleeping in the living room and children and grandparents in one or two bedrooms.

Eating

Although Mongolians in urban areas are adopting a more Westernized diet, the general Mongolian diet consists largely of dairy products, meat, millet, barley, and wheat. Mutton or beef is usually eaten at least once a day. Rice is common in urban areas. The variety and availability of vegetables and fruits are limited by the climate, but potatoes, cabbage, carrots, onions, and garlic are generally available. Wild berries and, in a few areas, a small number of apples grow in Mongolia. In summer, people eat milk products, such as dried milk curds, butter, airag (fermented mare’s milk), and yogurt instead of large quantities of meat. Common meals include guriltai shui (mutton and noodle soup), boiled mutton, and buuz (steamed dumplings stuffed with diced meat, onion, cabbage, garlic, salt, and pepper). A boiled version of the dumpling is called bansh.

The main meal of the day throughout the country is in the evening, when the whole family sits together. Western utensils are common for all meals, but chopsticks are used by some. Most urban dwellers use a knife to cut meat, and spoons to eat rice or vegetables. In urban apartments, people have dining tables and chairs, while in rural areas, people sit on the floor or on small stools to eat from a low table. In the evening, soup is served in individual bowls. If the main dish is boiled meat, it is eaten from a communal bowl.

Socializing

A handshake is the most common greeting in urban areas of Mongolia. A standard greeting in formal situations or among strangers is Ta sain baina uu? (“How do you do?”). Acquaintances prefer more casual greetings such as Sain uu (“Hello”) or Sonin yutai ve? (“What’s new?”). In rural areas, people exchange their pipes or snuff as a form of greeting and ask such questions as how fat the livestock are or how favorable the particular season is.

Mongolian names consist of a patronymic and a given name. All people are called by their given names. The patronymic is rarely used in ordinary speech and never alone. Its purpose is to distinguish between people who might have the same given name. It is the possessive form of the father’s name. For example, a person named Hashbatyn Hulan is called Hulan, and her father is Hashbat. A title often follows the given name in addressing a person. It is used to recognize a person’s rank, seniority (in age or status), or profession. For example, a respected teacher might be addressed as Batbayar bagsh (teacher), or an honored elder as Sumiya guai (“Mr.”). Guai is also used for women. Sometimes a person who is close to an older person will call that person father or mother, or uncle or aunt, even though they are not related.

There is a long tradition of hospitality, and impromptu visits are common. Guests are usually greeted by the host and family members at the door in modern apartment buildings, or, in rural areas, outside the ger. When entering a ger, people customarily move around to the left. During formal visits, the host sits opposite the entrance; women sit to the left, men to the right. Tea with milk is served to guests. Airag might be served instead of tea during summer, and vodka may be served at any time. Guests often bring the hosts a small gift. On very important occasions, a khadag (a blue silk band) and a silver bowl filled with airag are presented to an elder or a person of higher social rank as a sign of respect and good wishes.

Recreation

Mongolian wrestling, horse racing, and archery are the most popular sports. The annual wrestling championships are enthusiastically followed throughout the country. Boxing, soccer, volleyball, basketball, and table tennis are also enjoyed. Leisure activities include visiting family and friends, watching television, going to the movies, and, especially in summer, making outings to the countryside. Sunday is a favorite day for picnics, and some people own small summer cabins in the hills around the capital. Traditional songs are often sung at weddings or family gatherings, and traditional dance and music performances draw large audiences in Ulaanbaatar. Mongolia also has a storytelling tradition. More modern entertainment such as rock concerts are increasingly popular among young people.

Holidays and Celebrations

Official holidays include International New Year’s Day (1 January) and the lunar New Year, or Tsagaan Sar (White Month), celebrated on the first two days of the first lunar month; International Women’s Day (8 March); Naadam, or Mongolian People’s Revolution (11–13 July); and the declaration of Mongolia as a People’s Republic (26 November). As the most important traditional holiday, Tsagaan Sar is marked by family gatherings; it is preceded by days of housecleaning.

Source: Encarta Interactive World Atlas