Happy holidays (part 2): Tsagaan Sar

In most of Mongolia, winter ends on the lunar new year. As the Year of the Monkey began last week, friends and familiy gathered together to celebrate Цагаан Сар (Tsagaan Sar), the White Month, the biggest holiday in the country.

In most of Mongolia. In Bayan-Ulgii, the new year also begins in spring, and it is also the year’s biggest holiday. But for Kazakhs, as for Westerners, spring begins on the vernal equinox in March.

None of my CPs celebrated Tsagaan Sar in their own homes. Most Kazakhs I asked said they visited one or two Mongolian families — close friends, neighbors, coworkers — who kept the holiday. But where most of the country grinds to a halt for the first half of Februrary, my school and community charged full steam ahead until the nationally declared holiday (February 9-11) shut down all federal institutions (including schools) and Mongolian-owned businesses.

I had a nice week off, though.

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When I was first introduced to the faculty at my school, one of my CPs pulled me aside to point out a teacher.

“That’s Tuul,” she said. “The Mongolian teacher.”

“There’s only one Mongolian teacher?” I asked, deeply puzzled as to how one teacher could manage two thousand students. Mongolian language is possibly an even more challenging subject for my students than English, given that most of them speak Kazakh at home, receive limited conversational exposure to Mongolian, and yet are expected to speak it fluently if they want to attend a Mongolian university.

“No,” the CP insisted, “the Mongolian teacher.”

Abruptly I realized she wasn’t talking about language. Of the entire hundred-something teaching faculty at my school, exactly one teacher is ethnically Mongolian.

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I have a total half-dozen Mongolian contacts at site — Tuul, and about half of my students at the police station. Most of my fellow PCVs spent the last week visiting the homes of friends and family, being stuffed to the brim with бууз and vodka. I spent most of the week relaxing at home, because I didn’t know where any of the Mongolians lived and I was nervous to go alone[1].

I did, however, visit one family. At lunch with a Russian friend working at the local Teachers’ College, I mentioned that I wanted to experience the holiday somehow. It turned out that in a few hours she was going with some other teachers to visit a coworker, and they were happy to invite me along. We hitched a ride with the director of the college (a nominal CP of mine, though I’ve yet to work with him on any projects) and arrived to the family’s apartment around 4 in the afternoon.

The first thing you do, when you arrive at a house during Tsagaan Sar, is greet the members of the household from oldest to youngest. They are each holding a хадах (khadakh), or ceremonial scarf. You support their elbows (if they are older than you; if they are younger, they support yours) and kiss them on each cheek, saying “Амар байна уу?”[2]

Everyone sits at a table which is absolutely loaded with food. Notable elements are the боов (boov) tower, a pastry-and-candy centerpiece whose height signifies the age and status of the family; a great many different kinds of fruit and vegetable salads; and the meat plate, which (confusingly for me) features қазы, or horse sausage, usually considered a Kazakh specialty[3]. We were served milk tea, then hot айраг (airag, fermented mare’s milk, also known as қымыз or komis), and our hosts chatted with the other guests.

Then came the vodka. Theoretically, anyone who visits a house is supposed to take three shots of vodka. Thankfully, most households are aware that three shots is a lot for an hour-and-a-half visit that (elsewhere in Mongolia) may be directly followed by another visit to somebody else. We did one toast, after the eldest man in the family gave a speech; everybody sipped their vodka; one of the men refilled everyone’s shot glass; and we ate some more.

Out came the бууз. Бууз (buuz, pronounced ‘boats’) are steamed meat dumplings, a Mongolian staple, and the traditional Tsagaan Sar meal. It is considered polite to eat at least three бууз on a Tsagaan Sar visit. I ate five, because they were quite good бууз and I had eaten a light lunch in preparation for the visit. Everyone chatted, then the next-oldest man in the household gave a speech. Everyone had another sip of vodka. The ladies of the house refilled our айраг glasses and passed out wine to the women, which I was pleased with because it tasted slightly less like paint stripper[4].

The oldest man among the visitors gave a speech. We toasted. The director of the teacher’s college gave a monetary gift and a speech. We toasted. One of the teachers gave a speech, and another teacher sang a song. We toasted again. I observed that we were now well past the required three shots; but then again, no one was actually drinking a shot at a time.

Then the head of the household looked at me and asked the teacher’s college director who I was. I blinked and gave him my name in Mongolian. He told me to give a speech.

I asked, in Mongolian, if I could give it in English and have the director translate. They were excited to realize I knew a little Mongolian and told me to give it in Mongolian. I gave it a shot, but I haven’t spoken Mongolian in two months (and then only to taxi drivers in the capital). Finally the director told me to just speak English, I said a couple of sentences, and everyone toasted.

My Russian friend gave a speech in Russian, to which everyone but me nodded wisely, and then we wrapped up our visit with gifts from our host.

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To learn about a more typical Tsagaan Sar experience, and see actual pictures, check out some posts by my fellow volunteers:

Tsagaan Sar: Year of the Monkey
Tsagaan Sar Pictures
Сар Шинэдээ Сайхан Шилээрэй
Цагаан Сар


[1] On Monday Tuul came up to me and apologized profusely, using as much English as she knew, for forgetting to invite me to her home like she had invited the other teachers. I felt a great deal less guilty for not calling her and asking if I could visit.
[2] A variation on the usual hello, “Сайн байна уу?”, this literally translates to “Are you resting?”
[3] One key way to distinguish between Kazakhs and Mongolians: Kazakhs like horse and eat it at most celebrations. Many Mongolians dislike the taste (which has the same consistency and flavor as beef, but is rather gamier) and consider it a winter-only meat.
[4] I don’t really drink, so all alcohol tastes at least a little bit like paint stripper to me.