This week marks the end of the American holiday season and the beginning of Mongolia’s, as both sides of the world celebrate the calendar new year. It’s been a weird couple of weeks for me.
I came back to site from the capital on the 23rd. Bayan-Ulgii has a surprisingly large Western volunteer/expat community — the Norwegian Lutheran Mission, the English Language Institute, and Nova Lingua operate here year-round, in addition to long-term tourists, short-term teachers, and at least one expat family — and all of us were invited to Little Christmas Eve, hosted by the Norwegians. We had traditional porridge and marzipan and sang Christmas carols. I’d met about half the Westerners before, but it was fun to meet the rest and celebrate a holiday we have in common.
I had originally planned to go to school on Christmas Eve and Christmas, since I’d been away for so long, but homesickness hit me pretty hard on the 24th. I stayed home, caught up with errands, and then in the evening those of us without families to celebrate with got together for a traditional Norwegian dinner. We ate cured sheep rib, mashed potatoes and turnips, sour cabbage, and lingonberry sauce, and finished off the meal with a delicious rice pudding made from last night’s porridge. I hung out and played board games for an hour or two, then went to bed.
It was interesting — Karen and David’s pre-Christmas celebrations are much more familiar to me than Mongolian Шинэ Жил, but the food and traditions are still very different. Among other things, my family celebrates Christmas in the commercial-agnostic way common in America, and so an overtly religious discussion of Christmas and Norwegian traditions (provided for the kids on the 23rd) took me aback. After a moment, of course, I had to laugh at myself — Christmas is a fundamentally religious holiday, even if it’s not always celebrated as such in the States.
All four Bayan-Ulgii PCVs originally planned to work on Christmas. But when Tess and Alex’s work got canceled at the last minute, Jake and I decided to take off and celebrate with them. All of us were a little bit homesick at this time of year, and I don’t think it helped that we’d all been away from site for a significant portion of the month. We had a Holiday Turkey donated to us by Peace Corps staff, so we cooked an awesome dinner that kept us fed through the weekend. We followed it up with drinks (for the other three) and card games, those being a “weekends together in Ulgii” staple, then hung out and relaxed on Saturday. I also had the chance to talk to everyone in my family, and to open a care package that had been waiting at the post office most of the month.
Usually, on Christmas Eve, I hang out with my dad and wrap a few last presents. Our neighborhood does a luminaria, and so around noon we go to our neighbor’s house to put candles in white paper bags. A few people drop the candles off up and down the street. After that, we go home and cook dinner — usually ham, veggies, mashed potatoes, crescent rolls, cranberry sauce, and baked apples, with French silk pie for dessert. As soon as it gets dark (by 5pm), we light the candles in front of our house, as well as any neighbors who haven’t got to theirs yet. Our house is at the top of a hill on a straight dead-end street, so you can see the whole street lit up and down.
After dinner, we bring our presents down and deposit them under the tree. When we were kids, we’d watch those classic Christmas claymation videos before bed — Rudolph and The Little Drummer Boy — but for the last few years we’ve foregone that to sit around and chat.
On Christmas Day, we open presents with my dad and eat a big breakfast (cinnamon rolls are usually a staple). Around midmorning we head over to my mom’s, have another round of presents, and relax for the afternoon by the fire with Christmas songs on TV. My mom and stepdad make a delicious Christmas dinner (I missed barbeque ribs this year!) and we stuff ourselves silly to round off the holiday.
I finally went back to work on Monday. I learned that I’d missed the school’s Шинэ Жил (Shin Jil, or New Year’s) celebration, which had taken place the 23-25. Шинэ Жил is a Western import from the Soviet Union era, rather than a native new year’s tradition, and is celebrated by Kazakhs and Mongolians alike (though Kazakhs call it Жаңа Жыл – Janga Jil). I’m told that the school party features Father Winter — the Russian analogue to Santa Claus — with dancing, costumes, and skits. The adult parties, however, happen in banquet halls and restaurants, and almost every professional organization books one. They started while I was in UB (the conference rooms in our training venue were booked almost every evening), and my school had theirs Monday night.
It was your usual Kazakh party: We sat, chatted, and ate snacks (candy, fruit, cold salads, and the ubiquitous ham-cucumber-tomato plate); circle danced for a while; had an awards ceremony; danced more; ate cake; danced; ate meat; danced. Our school had hired famous singers from Khovd for one set of dances, and somebody dressed up as Santa Father Winter to hand out goodie bags with sweetbread, juice, and oranges to all the teachers. I’ve been having lung trouble since my stay in UB, so I couldn’t dance for long without coughing; parties aren’t much fun when you can neither dance nor make extended small talk, so I headed home before midnight.
Tonight, families will gather together and stay up til midnight to welcome the new year. While I would be welcome to spend another evening with any of the Westerners, I haven’t seen much of my CPs since I came back into town, and this is one tradition that I want to experience the Kazakh way. I’m super grateful to be invited to a CP’s house to celebrate.
See you all in 2016!