Thursday, February 18, 2016

Цагаан Сар—Tsagaan Sar—White Moon/Month

            Last week was a major Mongolian holiday in which the schools were off; really the whole country was shut down. Shipments to stores stopped and all the bread and milk disappeared. It was the festival of Цагаан Сар which marks the beginning of the lunar New Year. There are a number of customs and traditions that make this holiday really unique, so before I tell you what Sally and I were up to let me explain how the holiday works.

What is Цагаан Сар, Anyways?!?

            Basically everybody visits everybody. It is traditional to wear Mongolian winter deels. Since Sally and I have not bought these yet, we wore our summer deels that our host families gave us for Надаам (Nadaam).  The food for the holiday is Бууз (buuz—steamed dumplings), and the drink is Архи (vodka). The holiday is broken up into three specific days. The first two days are spent visiting family, and the last is for friends and coworkers. Usually a married couple will visit the husband’s family on the first day, and the wife’s family on the second, or for convenience, whichever is closer followed by the out of town family.

            Guests arrive at a host house and greet the host with a Хадаг (hadag—a traditional cloth made of silk). This ceremony involves touching forearms. The person who is older places their forearms on top of the younger person.  If there is an elder (Grandmother or Grandfather) in the house sometimes the guest will present the elder with money. Guest are then seated at a table with an elaborate spread that includes a massive amount of food in the form of potato salad, candy, fruit, and other various side dishes. Every household has a circular centerpiece made out of a traditional type of bread and filled with sweets and dried cheese curds. The layers of bread signify the age, prestige, and wealth of a family. Young families only have three layers. Older families sometimes have five or seven layers. The Prime Minister might have 9 layers. Odd numbers are important during Цагаан Сар. Also on every family’s table will be a large slab of meat. Younger families usually use the chest/breastplate of a cow. Older families often have the back of a sheep. This meat is sliced off throughout the meal and presented to the guest. The process of cooking these enormous slabs of meat is a mystery to me, but I believe it is often blow torched and then steamed in a large barrel (maybe oil drum) over a coal or wood stove.

            Guests enjoy the feast of the table while the female host steams premade бууз. It is good luck for a family to prepare a lot of бууз for Цагаан сар. The typical Mongolian family will make between 700-1500 бууз in the weeks preceding this celebration. The dumplings are then frozen in large freezers or on an apartment balcony. Guests are usually presented with a plate of between 10 and 20 бууз. It is polite to eat a minimal of 3 бууз in each household. Men are often expected to eat more. While the бууз are being eaten, the male host will prepare vodka shots and distribute them to guests. Most hosts expect their guests to take at least 3 shots during a meal. The minimum you can take is one. Again odd numbers are important so if you drink a fourth shot, you are expected to drink a fifth.   It is very difficult to refuse alcohol on this holiday. Mongolians can sometimes take this as an insult. Often the male host will also remove a traditional snuff bottle and pass it to the guest to sniff or take a pinch of snuff as they desire.
            After the guest have eaten a number of бууз and drank a number of shots, they are presented with a gift by the host. These gifts are usually small (unless you are visiting family). Examples of typical gifts include chocolate bars, socks, money, soap, keychains, etc. Once the guest receives the gift it is polite to leave the house and continue to the next destination. Mongolians will sometimes visit between 5-15 houses in one day! This adds up to a lot of gifts, бууз, and vodka.

         This sums up what the adults and teenagers are doing, but what about the children ages 5-13? As far as I could tell they run free in the warmer weather of the thawing winter. Usually the children go through the neighborhood knocking on everyone’s doors. The host opens the door, exclaims at the pretty deels the children are wearing, and gives each child a gift. This gift is usually chocolate of some sort or crisp new money of a small denomination. So while the adults are feasting, the children are experiencing essentially three days of trick-or-treat. People living in apartment buildings will hear knocks on their door almost non-stop for these three days. When a host runs out of money or treats, they just stop answering the door for the children, who wander the streets in packs communicating quickly where the best houses are.   
Quick facts:
            During the Цагаан Сар holiday, Mongolians often spend almost a quarter of their yearly income. This is sometimes achieved through loans from the bank for holiday purposes. It is also estimated that the average Mongolian will kiss a hundred people during the 3 days. The holiday is a celebration of family and giving with tradition embedded throughout. For women this can be a very busy holiday. Imagine preparing a thanksgiving feast for three straight days. For men it can be a very foggy holiday, since they are expected to drink so much more.

What were Sally and I up to during this cultural explosion?!?
            Over the course of the holiday, Sally and I visited five houses which was a nice number for us. Usually PCVs end up visiting more houses, but because Sally and I are married the Mongolians often give us more privacy and don’t worry about us as much since we are a family. The holiday also focuses on family, so unless you are living with a Mongolian family (many PCVs live in gers in compounds with Mongolian families) it is sometimes difficult to hitch a ride to these festivities. In our case, we were happy to be invited to five houses and it was more than enough for us to celebrate the holiday with.
            We started the holiday out by visiting one of my English teacher’s houses on the evening before the first day. (Цагаан Сар eve) This was very nice of her, because this evening is usually reserved for nuclear family. She prepared a traditional feast with some nice American dishes as well. (Fried Chicken!) It was a very pleasant meal and they were very helpful in explaining how Цагаан Сар works. Her husband being a very nice guy, invited us to join him the next morning to see the first sunrise of the new year which is a Mongolian tradition.
Day 1
            The next morning after an evening of feasting and a half of a bottle of vodka, I rolled out of bed and jumped into his car at 7:20AM to see the New Year’s sun. Sally opted to sleep, which was more traditional of her since usually only the men and children go to a high place to see the sun rise. We drove to the gate outside of town where a massive Овоо (awaah—traditional marker that is placed in sacred places usually on mountains, consult earlier blog post) marked a shamanistic site. There, a couple of hundred cars parked in the hillside and Mongolians got out watching the sun rise over the eastern ridge. I busied myself with taking pictures of the city at dawn, and almost leaped out of my skin when the sun crested the ridge and several hundred Mongolians raised their arms to the sky and shouted at the tops of their lungs. It was later explained to me that this is the same word that Mongolians have shouted for centuries, and in the time of Chinggis Khan it meant “Charge!!” Many people brought rice and milk to throw as the sun rose. This seems to symbolize sharing your food with nature/god. The sun risen, we walked around the овоо in a clockwise manner periodically throwing rice and returned to the city; me to bed.
            That day Sally and I were invited to a teacher’s house from Sally’s school. It was a pleasant experience where the limitations of our Mongolian were painfully obvious. We participated in all of the traditional aspects of the meal. This teacher had a milky substance in a 2 liter bottle that she offered to us. I suspected Айраг (airag—fermented mare’s milk), but she called in unfamiliar word “Koumiss.” It turns out that this is the Kazak word for Айраг and we found ourselves having to finish a healthy portion of the sour liquid which is more typically drunk at Naadam.  My experience with this drink has taught me that it is an acquired taste that I may never acquire.
             While eating, Sally discovered a Japanese Yen embedded in one of her бууз. It turns out that sometimes families will hide a coin in one dumpling out of the hundreds they make. It is said to be real good luck if you find the coin. Naturally, Sally, who has perfected these random acts of luck, would find the coin in the first house we went to on the first day of Цагаан Сар.
Second Day
            The next day, one of my English teachers who lives with his parents invited us to shadow him. We started the day off at his parents’ house, and then traveled to my social workers house. We ended the day at our third house which was the English teacher’s brother’s house. Upon exiting this last house, I judged my sobriety to not be quite what I would like, so we called it a day and returned home.
Third Day
            Having long ago run out of candy for the children we shut our door, and stayed home on this last day attempting to feel hungry again. I estimate that I may have eaten 50 бууз over the course of two days (five houses), and drank a minimum of 5 shots of vodka at every house. Sally’s final count was closer to twenty бууз
            Overall it was a fun holiday, Sally and I were able to practice our Mongolian, and hang out with new friends. Mongolians can be incredibly hospitable, and Цагаан Сар brings out the best of this trait.


1 comment:

  1. Very interesting post Caleb! Of course Sally, the one person who doesn't really need it, would get the lucky coin!!