Like Mark said, Tsagaan Sar involves visiting the homes of your friends and families. At each visit everybody does a formal, traditional greeting that is only done for this holiday. Mark and I were pretty nervous about not doing these correctly and asked our coworkers beforehand about what to do. The first couple of homes we visited we were really nervous about messing up, but by the end we felt pretty comfortable.
So first, if it is going to be a large gathering of people, you arrive to the host’s house and drink tea and take some candy and dairy products until the rest of the guests arrive. Men begin by passing around their snuff bottle. This is a small bottle filled with a sort of tobacco that they sniff up their noses. They pass the bottle to everybody, but most of us, except the other older men who use snuff, just hold it to our noses and pretend to sniff. When passing the bottle, you must do so as seen in the photo below, always passing it with your right hand.
When everybody is there the greetings begin. (If it’s just a small gathering and more informal you can greet each other when you arrive.) You get in line and begin greeting the oldest person there. The younger person puts her arms out, elbows bent, palms up. The older person does the same but her arms go on top of the younger person’s. This shows that the younger person is respectfully holding up the arms of the older person. As you’re doing this you say a couple of greetings, basically, asking if they’re having a nice new year so far. At this point in formal settings you also put a crisp 1,000 or 5,000 Tugrik bill in their hands. Then, the older person leans in as if they were going to kiss the cheeks of the younger person, but instead of kissing, they sniff each cheek.
Now, everybody should have greeted the older person. After this everybody usually goes around the room to greet everybody else. If you are the same age, instead of one person holding up the other person’s arms, each person puts their right arm on top and left arm below. The tricky part for us was knowing who was older, younger, or the same age. Sometimes I got so used to greeting older people that when I came around to people the same age or younger I put my hands under theirs. Usually people just smiled and maybe laughed a little at me, and I did the same as I realized what I had done. Finally, when all of these greetings were complete, the eating and drinking began!