For Tibetans, Losar (ལོ་གསར་ or “new year”) is the biggest celebration of the year, with events lasting sixteen days, complete with feasting, gift-giving, and traditional song and dance. But there’s one aspect of Losar that can also be unsettling, especially for children.
Growing up in my village of Glinggyal in the county of Rebgong within the historic Amdo region of Tibet, I heard the story told to all children that if you do not eat well on New Year’s Eve, you will be in big trouble. According to legend, Yama—the king and judge of the underworld—will come to your door and weigh each kid to see if they have eaten enough food at the start of the New Year. Worried that I would not satisfy the scary King Yama, I remember asking my parents if I have eaten enough after each bite of my food. Although I never saw King Yama, in my young mind I never doubted his existence and always managed to eat my full portion of the New Year’s feast.
In the three historic regions of Tibet—Amdo, Central, and Kham—Losar is celebrated according to the different regional customs. The “Year of the Pig” began on February 5, 2019, in the Gregorian calendar—and is particularly auspicious because it occurs at the exact same time as the Lunar New Year or Chinese New Year. Here is how people celebrate the New Year in my village.
Our Losar does not just start on New Year’s Day. Preparation for the event can start as early as December. It is not uncommon for the whole family and many relatives to help out in this preparation process: making new traditional clothes, deep cleaning the whole house, acquiring food and drink for the feast, baking tons of Rebgong bread to give as gifts, and deep frying flour-based goodies for the table display.
After months of planning, baking, and shopping, New Year’s Eve finally arrives. The day starts with cleaning the house and arranging the colorful table display, with plates filled with decorated goodies—snacks, drinks, fruits, intricate pastries, and more. Usually it has a pile of fried long bread called shole, fried noodle strings called sog sog, fried braided donuts called ma hua, fruits and biscuits, and many containers of juice, sodas, and alcoholic drinks. The women in the household prepare the New Year’s Eve dinner: making momos (steamed dumplings), boiling yak and lamb meat, and brewing milk tea.
On this day, we also pay homage to the local mountain deity. Before dinner, the whole family gathers on a rooftop or in the yard to make a sang (smoke) offering of juniper branches, flour, roasted grains, candies, and sometimes baked goods. The offering coincides with burning butter lamps in the family shrine and practicing prostration, a Buddhist practice to show respect to Buddha or lamas (spiritual leaders). We finish off the ritual by setting off fireworks.
After the offering has been made, everyone sits together and partakes in the New Year’s Eve dinner. The main course is usually boiled yak or lamb meat with milk tea, accompanied by a noodle soup or, nowadays, vegetable stir-fry. As a kid, I remember impatiently eating my way through this feast because we were so excited about the other aspects of New Year: the fireworks, the colorful traditional new clothes, and the option to stay up late. All these things were so much more appealing than the feast!
As in the Western tradition, our New Year’s Day begins at midnight. One of the family members, usually a man, brings the smoke offering to our village temple where the mountain gods reside. A few hundred families from seven villages take part in this communal ritual, making offerings together and then setting fireworks off at the center of the temple.
When those family members return home from the ritual, usually around 1 or 2 a.m., the rest of the family gets up. Everybody dresses in new traditional clothes. If a family member passed away in the previous year, we abstain from wearing new clothes. We make another smoke offering on the rooftop and in the family shrine, and then we have another meal! This second dinner is usually yak meat or lamb meat momo with milk tea.
After the meal, parents pack gifts for the children to deliver to the elders. It usually includes baked Rebgong bread topped with eight momos, fried bread, some fruits or candy, and one or two pieces of meat. The men get Tibetan distilled liquor, similar to moonshine.
In their new clothes, the well-dressed children visit the elders with the gifts in the village one by one, bowing and showing their respect. The elders offer the children gifts too: usually some fruit, candy, or money. They say some blessings and auspicious words to the kids, such as, “I am giving you my old age. May you live as long as I have lived.” Meanwhile, the adults deliver gift packages to the families in the village who lost relatives in the previous year. It’s a way to remind them that the deceased are not forgotten, and the living are supported as a community.
This delivery of gifts starts around midnight and continues until the morning. This way everybody is celebrated—youth, elders, deceased, and gods—to make it truly a celebration of everyone.
For the rest of New Year’s Day, people tend to stay inside their own house with family. It is considered inauspicious to leave an empty house with the door locked or do any major cleaning. Some family members may take a walk around the village, but we are not supposed to be empty-handed at any point. It is common to carry some sort of small gifts in your pocket so that when you meet anyone on the street, even strangers, you have something to offer. We usually take naps, eat, and watch traditional Tibetan music videos. We also perform songs and dances together. Music is important, so every household must have some sort of Tibetan music playing to continue the feeling of celebration.
Starting on the second day of the New Year, the focus shifts to embracing our relatives and community. Families arrange weddings and celebrate the elders turning eighty years old. Traditionally, Tibetans do not celebrate individual birthdays, although this is changing among the younger generations. According to the common practice, everybody turns one year older on the first day of the New Year and thus shares a birthday. But eighty is a special year for Amdo Tibetans. For these octogenarians, we have a tradition of throwing a big party, and the whole village comes out to celebrate. People eat, drink, sing songs, and dance all day long.
Relatives share meals every day, each family taking turns to serve as host. The meals usually include trays of yak or mutton meat, followed by momos made with dried radish, lamb, or yak, then noodle soup, and joma, a sweet wild mushroom mixed with rice. These parties go on until the eleventh day of the New Year.
For five days, the main Buddhist monastery in Rebgong hosts Gelugpa Monlam Chenmo, a great prayer festival. Activities include the unveiling of a massive Buddha painting, a showcase of sculptures made of butter, and the masked cham dance. Everybody stays in the monastery and attends these religious rituals until the sixteenth day to close the Losar celebrations.
Together, these customs are a feast for the physical body with food and feast for the spirit with religious rituals. We value tradition but also welcome new ways of living. We honor the young and the old, commemorate the living and the dead. Losar is a celebration of family, relatives, and community. It is about everybody coming together to share, give, and have fun while embracing the traditions of our ancestors.
Khamo is a PhD student at the University of Virginia and works on archival and cultural sustainability projects at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.