Tsagaan Sar and Various Get-Togethers

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.

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When you don’t get invited anywhere but you already bought the outfits.

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).

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Around the table with American and Mongolian friends alike.

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.

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mmmmm… brisket and sheep fat. The tail fat is the best.

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.

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Colleague #1 home: us with her 12th grade daughter and her checkers-loving son.

“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.

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A picture with the man who refused to believe we were real Americans (Apparently we are Filipino and Russian)

“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.

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Colleague #2’s home.
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Look at James in the mirror trying to make the baby smile.

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.

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Using sheep fat as a pacifier: brilliant.

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.

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You’re not an official couple until you have matching deels.
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Snow and Ice Festival

There is a big river near Our Town called the Tamir River that has been completely frozen over for a couple of months already. During the summer, the Tamir River is a lovely place to have a picnic and maybe fish for trout (so I’m told). In the winter, the Tamir River becomes a place for games like ice shagai (use small metal rectangles to hit small pillars 80 feet away) and what they call kurling (like giant shuffle board on ice). Upon finding out that we had never been to the river (we don’t have a car and we have been busy, ok!) our community English club that meets on Sundays decided to rectify the situation and we all drove out for an afternoon of history lessons and practice.

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Cigarillo in my mouth, shagai in my hand.
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I thought Mongolian kids couldn’t get any cuter, then they started wearing father-son matching deels.
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James was great at it, as usual. Damn he’s annoying sometimes.

It was cold, but I didn’t feel it much, because I spent most of the time gliding across the ice trying to put enough force behind my shagai to propel it 80 ft. while simultaneously trying not to fall too hard. It was so much fun getting to learn to play from strangers who were more than happy to teach the strange foreigners.

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Power Posing.

Little did we know, we would be returning to Tamir River the very next weekend with our schools for the annual Snow and Ice Festival. Everyone dressed in their traditional dress finery, packed themselves into a van, and headed down to the river.

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21 people in coats, plus driver, plus food and drink packed into this van. If we weren’t good friends before, we are now.

During the Snow and Ice Festival, we lowly amateurs were not allow to actually play any of the games, but the people-watching kept us busy. I kept a mental checklist of who had the most flamboyant hat and how many animals it probably took to make it.

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Some of my colleagues, looking fly. 

Being a California girl, I was a bit put off by the ostentatious use of fur and leather when we first moved to Mongolia, but I have changed my tune pretty quick. Not using every part of every animal would be wasteful (and Mongolians are anything but wasteful) and until you have experienced -35 C, you really can’t appreciate how wonderful being warm is. I am almost ready to invest in some authentic hat and boots, but I keep having to remind myself that while I might feel stylish and cozy wearing horse-hair boots in Mongolia, I doubt I will get a positive response back in the US (that and my feet would be a sweaty mess).

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We live in the coolest place.
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“Kurling”
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I participated in a wrestling tournament! I lost this time, but I’ll be back, you’ll see! I’ll be back!

Zoom back to the festival: because we went with my school, we didn’t have any say in when we would go home. By hour four, I was getting a little chilled despite the huge amounts of buuz, hot milk tea, and vodka that was being passed around in the various vans where people would hole up to warm themselves. Despite the cold, my school teachers insisted on staying until the sun went down, six hours after we got there. James and I got home, got under the covers to warm up, and immediately fell asleep.

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Just in case anyone forgets how cold Mongolia is. Bet you couldn’t tell I was wearing three pairs of heavyweight long-underwear under those leggings. 

Merry Chrisma-hanu-kwanzikaa!

To Mongolians, there is no real difference between Christmas and New Years (and add Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and Festivus to that list for good measure). The compilation of everything is called Shin Jil.

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Merry Everything from our side of the planet to yours.

Mongolians use a lot of Christmas iconography but mostly as generic decoration for Shin Jil and it imparts no importance whatsoever. Really Shin Jil is an excuse to get dolled up and have a glamorous party to ring in the New Year season.

Both of our schools had Shin Jil parties and luckily they were on different nights, so, of course, we had to attend both. Shin Jil is THE party of the year. Women here like looking good on a daily basis and dressing in what I would classify as prom dresses for even the smallest event, so for Shin Jil, they go all out. Every hairdresser in town was booked solid and making bank.

My school’s party was on Wednesday night and my first impression was that everyone looked really really nice. I wore a 1940s-esque black floor-length gown and didn’t feel the least bit overdressed. If anything, I felt like my outfit was missing some glitz. Note to self: next year wear more glitter. We had a fabulous time, I even won a rice cooker in the raffle! The very next night was James’ school party and by then I had my hair and makeup tried and tested. I liked going to James’ school party because when one of his counterparts told me he didn’t like to dance, I hijacked the DJ table, dragged James to the dance floor, and proved all his colleagues wrong. Later in the evening, they made us sing (as Mongolians are apt to do) and we sang what I suppose is now “our” song: When I’m 64. No one filmed it, which is maybe for the best.

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I really did try to open my eyes for this one.

Without the culture of “The Holidays” everywhere we went, we suddenly felt obligated to uphold a bunch of Christmas traditions all on our own, things that we would never do otherwise. We didn’t want to invest in a fancy plastic tree, so we made one out of cheap twinkle lights instead, and I love it. I played Christmas music round the clock for a week and James wasn’t even annoyed. I made my students in movie club watch “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” (obviously my favorite holiday movie) and I think they actually enjoyed it thanks to the large amount of physical humor.

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Creative use of hard-to-find twinkle lights.

My school was supposed to have a “Christmas Carols competition” that didn’t feature a single carol, but did feature a lot of great Mongolian songs and what they call “American dances” (ie. high schoolers doing a jazz routine to a compilation of songs in English).

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It might be a federal law that every little Mongolian girl must own a puffy white dress.

Another volunteer from the M27 group, Emma, left her nearby town to come celebrate Christmas with us. She decided to buy a tree on her own, which we decorated while cooking a fancy dinner on Christmas Eve (BBQ pork sliders on homemade buns. Sometimes I think we eat better than most Americans). The next day we went on a Christmas day hike into the mountains where we found the only patch of snow deep enough to slide down using a tarp we were carrying around. When we came home, wet, cold and tired, it felt as much like a real Christmas as Christmases can get. it was the hap-hap-happiest Christmas since Bing Crosby tap danced with Danny f-ing Kaye.

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Emma before she taught us old-forgotten carols.
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Finding fabulous ingredients here is a full time hobby, but I’d say it’s worth it. Arkhangai is for foodies.
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The hike begins at the ovoo.

The holidays have perhaps been easier for me than for other people, because this is far from my first Christmas away from “home”, but I think also because this place feels like home in many ways already. If I have any resolutions, it is only to be more present. With how busy we are and how many new things there are to experience, the past eight months (holy cow! eight months!) have gone by so quickly that I want to start being more mindful about the everyday joys. Cheers to the New Year!

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I don’t even care if we’re gross. ❤ Photo cred: Emma