Tibetan New Year: Losar Festival

Written by Sally Guo Updated Jun. 18, 2021

In 2023, Tibetan New Year takes place on  Feb. 21, 2023, and the celebrations last two weeks. 

The Tibetan New Year, also known as Losar, is the most important festival in the Tibetan lunar calendar. It is celebrated over a period of 2 weeks and generally falls during the months of December and January in the Western calendar.

Losar is enthusiastically celebrated by Tibetans and is marked by various ancient ceremonies that represent the struggle between good and evil, such as chanting and the passing of torches through the crowds. There are also many amusing activities for all ages such as the dance of the Ibex deer and the delightful dramatic battles between the King and his various ministers. Overall, Losar is especially known for its music, dance, and the general spirit of merrymaking.

The traditions of the New Year’s festival begin a bit early, during the last 2 days of the old year, a period called Gutor in the Tibetan language. The first day of Gutor is spent thoroughly cleaning the house and putting up decorations, especially auspicious items. The kitchen must be particularly clean because since it is where the family's food is prepared, it must be kept free of bacteria. The chimney is also swept thoroughly.

On the second day of Gutor, certain special dishes are cooked in preparation for the celebrations which begin the following day. One such dish is a delicious soup served with small dumplings. The soup is made from meat, wheat, rice, vermicelli, peas, green peppers, radishes, sweet potatoes, and cheese. Inside the dumplings are bits of wood, paper, and/or pebbles. These ingredients purportedly foretell, in the way that tea leaves are read in some cultures, whether the future bodes well or not.

As well, religious ceremonies are held on the second day of Gutor. One visits the local monastery to worship and to deliver gifts—often gifts of food—to the monks. On a more secular level, Tibetans also set off firecrackers and other fireworks on the second day of Gutor as a symbol of driving away any evil spirits that may be lurking about.

On New Year's Day itself, the first official day of the New Year festival, Tibetans rise early and, after taking a bath and getting dressed, proceed to the household shrine to pay homage to the gods in the form of offerings. These usually consist of animal and demon shapes made from a kind of dough called torma. In addition, it is on New Year's Day that family and friends exchange gifts, much like people do in Western countries on Christmas Day. Loved ones also share a hearty meal together, which usually consists of a kind of cake called kapse and an alcoholic beverage called Chang which was traditionally enjoyed in order to keep warm and a close relative to beer.

Origin of Losar

Losar, the Tibetan word for New Year, is composed of 2 characters: Lo, which means "year"; and Sar, which means "new." The celebration of Losar can be traced back to Tibet's pre-Buddhist period. At that time, Tibetans were followers of the Bon religion and held a spiritual ceremony every winter. During the Bon celebrations, people would burn large quantities of incense on a certain day of the year (not based on the lunar new year, as it was not popular in Tibet at that time) in order to appease local spirits, deities, and protectors. When Buddhism arrived in Tibet, the older "heathen" ceremony of Bon was simply incorporated into the Buddhist tradition of Tibet, thereby becoming the Buddhist Losar festival. The Buddhist Losar festival originated during the reign of Pude Gungyal, the ninth king of Tibet.

The traditional Bon ceremony is said to have begun when an old woman called Belma introduced the measurement of time to Tibetans based on the moon's phases. This pre-Buddhist festival was held in autumn when the apricot trees blossomed. It may also have coincided with what later would become the traditional farmers' festival or the Harvest Festival. In any case, it was during this period that the art of the cultivation of soil—more specifically, the tilling of land and the planting of seeds, rather than just gathering seeds sown by nature's hand—was first introduced in Tibet. Religious ceremonies began thereafter to celebrate these new-found capabilities, and it may well have been the case that these celebrations led ultimately to the New Year's festival, also known as Losar, as it is known today in modern Tibet.

How to Celebrate the Tibetan New Year (Losar)

The Tibetan calendar consists of 12 lunar months, and Losar begins on the 1st day of the 1st lunar month. However, in Tibetan-Buddhist monasteries, the celebrations for Losar begin on the 29th day of the 12th month. That is the day before Losar's Eve. On that day, monasteries host a special kind of ritual in preparation for the Losar celebrations. Also on that day, a special kind of noodle soup called guthuk is made; it is created using 9 different ingredients, including dried cheese and various grains.

In addition, people place various ingredients such as chilies, salt, wool, rice, and coal inside dough balls, which are then handed out. The ingredients that one finds hidden in one's dough ball are supposed to be a lighthearted comment on one's character, in the spirit of a Chinese fortune cookie. For example, if a person finds chili in his dough, that means he is talkative; if white-colored ingredients such as salt or rice are found in the dough, this is taken as a good sign. If someone finds a piece of coal in his dough, in contrast, it carries the same symbolic meaning as finding coal in a Christmas stocking: it signifies that one has a "black heart."

The last day of the year is, as earlier indicated, a time to clean and prepare for the approaching New Year. Houses are thoroughly washed with soap and water, and then white-washed, after which people put on their finest clothing and adornments. This all culminates as a part of the custom of holding a family reunion, or "reunion feast," which is similar in spirit to the Han Chinese New Year's banquet.

Traditionally, on the first day of the New Year, the housewife will get up very early and, after cooking a pot of barley wine for the family, she will sit beside the window awaiting the sunrise. As the first ray of the new year’s sunshine touches the nearby earth, the housewife takes a bucket and heads for a nearby river or well to fetch the year's first bucket of water, which is seen as the most sacred, clearest water of the coming year. The family that fetches the first bucket of water from the river or well is believed to be blessed with good luck for the coming year.

On farms, housewives cook an equal number of sheep heads as there are family members. The cooked heads are then presented to the most elderly person in the family, who thereafter passes a sheep's head to each person present using a small knife. The hierarchical order in which the heads are passed out is determined by the age of the family members. In other words, the older family members will receive their sheep heads first; the youngest, last.

New Year’s Day celebrations are usually restricted to the immediate family. The city or village's streets are generally very quiet on this day. Then, the second day of Losar is the day for visiting with friends and extended relatives. On the third day, Tibetans in Lhasa especially visit the local monasteries in order to make offerings. Tibetan New Year usually lasts a total of 15 days.

Over the centuries, traditional ways of celebrating Losar have somewhat changed through time. For example, fireworks are a relatively recent addition to Losar but have grown in popularity to the point where today they are possibly Losar's main attraction (at least among youths). Also in contemporary times, the New Year’s good tidings ring out all across the country by means of electronic media, and celebrations around the country are broadcasted widely on television.

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