Tsagaan Sar is the Mongolian New Year and translates as “White Month”. Normally Tsagaan Sar is celebrated around the same time as the Chinese New Year in January/February but because Mongolia expected such a brutal winter, and Tsagaan Sar is supposed to ring in the coming Spring, they pushed it back a month this year. Many other volunteers have described it as a mix between Christmas and Halloween that lasts officially for three days but can go on for a week. Some have even described it as their new favorite holiday. Well good for them. Tsagaan Sar is not my favorite holiday.
Actually Tsagaan Sar was great, but honestly not much different than most other gatherings I have been to (haircutting ceremonies, wakes, and house-warmings), which all follow a standard timeline. Here is a hilariously abridged guide to celebrations in Mongolia partly-based on a series of texts James sent me from a housewarming party not long ago. This is the blog post where I take everything I have learned in a career in anthropology and just throw that out the window (I hope you’re happy you rushed me mom).
“Got some clarification: one of the teachers moved into a new apartment so we’re visiting her. I wish they had told me about this in advance”
The first things that makes celebrations special is we are never told about them until right before they are happening (48 hours if we are lucky, 20 minutes if we are not). In this case James was ambushed as he was leaving work.
“So far it resembles the other formal visits/celebrations. Lots of of food on the table. Here is the sequence: tea, then candy, then khiam and potato salad, then airag, then snuffbox, then vodka.”
Once at someone’s home, everyone sits in the living room around a low table that is covered with plates of potato salad, pickles, candy, fruit (a luxury food item), and a tower of arul (dried curd, which depending or variety can taste like a creamy yogurt bar or a sour brick). During Tsagaan Sar, there is also a special slab of boiled meat and fat (usually sheep) that sits in the middle of the table that anyone can carve small pieces from.
The “snuffbox” James mentioned is the “khoorog”, a bottle carved out of precious stone and filled with powdered tobacco. At pretty much any kind of celebration or ceremony, Mongolian men greet each other with a little ritual in which they swap khoorogs with the other person, sniff the other person’s khoorog, then hand it back. James doesn’t own a khoorog yet, and reminds me of this every time he sees one.
“Then buuz, then more vodka.”
During every celebration, the host or hostess of the house sits at the head of the table and welcomes new guests with a shot glass of vodka that is then passed around to everyone at the table. While I can usually get away with just touching my lips to the glass in a show of respect thereafter, the first glass is non-negotiable: you must drink the whole glass. The vodka shot glass continues to be handed around, but hostesses will generally follow that up with insisting that you drink a bowl of milk tea. When you are finished with the tea, you use your bowl to eat some of the food on the table until the buuz (big, steamed meat dumplings) are ready and served. Especially during Tsagaan Sar, the number of buuz you can eat can become a competition.
“Then beef. Then FANCY VODKA. It’s Russian and the man of the house is very proud of it. It’s not very good.”
The vodka shots continue to go around while bottles of juice and beer are also opened. My M.O. is to have a bottle of beer because the beers tend to be light Korean styles with little flavor and low alcohol content that make it seem like I am drinking with everyone, giving me a good excuse to skip the vodka, while not actually imbibing that much (James’ note: Having a beer in your hand doesn’t necessarily excuse you from the vodka). Sometimes, if I am lucky, there will also be fermented mare’s milk (airag) to drink—most Americans recoil at the thought of it, but I actually enjoy it in small quantities—or a surprisingly strong alcohol they make from the liquid skimmed from the top of yogurt that tastes like watery sake.
There isn’t usually much pressure to talk, which is great since my Mongolian is dismal and the TV is usually on in the background, giving people something to look at during silent pauses.
“Then more buuz. Then they brought it full circle with the milk tea again, followed by intermittent rounds of buuz and vodka. There was an exchange of gifts and some speechmaking. Winding down?”
After people have eaten their fill of buuz, depending on the occasion, there might be a small speech, or even better, singing. Mongolians love to sing. As a nomadic people, Mongolians carried their history and their art through songs. The most common themes I have noticed are songs about their homeland, the vast steppe, and mothers. Sometimes people will ask me to lead them in a song, but between my wandering pitch and forgetting half the words, I am only ever asked once.
Tsagaan Sar was fun because people really pull out all the stops and start the celebration by cleaning their homes from top to bottom and putting a plastic sheet over their carpets to protect them from all the visitors that come over. They also refill any containers in the home (i.e. sugar containers, water jugs). It’s probably because of some tradition (it is), but it’s also handy because everything is closed for the week so finding food is tough.
By most standards, our experience was somewhat subdued. We visited two colleagues’ homes on the second and third day of Tsagaan Sar, but I had the most fun at our neighbor’s apartment who had her daughter’s hair-cutting ceremony on day three.
Mongolians shave their children’s heads at ages two and four for girls and three and five for boys. As each person of the circle of family and friends cuts off a strand of hair, they wish for something for the child (I wished she would become a kind-hearted person) and put some money into a bag with the hair. I love hair-cutting ceremonies, but to go any more in-depth is beyond the scope of this blog post (maybe for another one down the road…).
On the whole, Tsagaan Sar for me was mostly a nice excuse to eat food at people’s houses and dress up in our fancy matching deels, which is pretty darn great in of itself.