Holy crap…I'm living in Mongolia!

tsagaan sar: it doesn’t just happen

The moment captured in this photo is the result of weeks and weeks of preparation.

The moment captured in this photo is the result of weeks and weeks of preparation.

This is the second in a series of posts about Mongolia’s Tsagaan Sar celebration. If you’re a stickler for beginning at the beginning, you may want to start here. And still more to come, including a more extensive photo gallery, in the next few days.

Imagine this: You’ve just celebrated Thanksgiving. You’ve had a great meal, watched some football, maybe gotten together with a few friends, and in general enjoyed a nice day with your family. And, like many do on this weekend each year, you begin to think about the Christmas holiday just around the corner. Your thoughts turn to your holiday shopping list—the gifts you’ll get for the kids, your partner, your parents, your partner’s parents. You think about whose family you’ll visit on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, or whether you’ll host some sort of gathering yourself this year. It’s early, but you might start thinking about your budget, mostly for gifts but maybe also for food and beverages (especially if you’re planning a holiday party), and travel.

Now, as you consider the to-do list required to pull all this off, contemplate this as well: You’re also going to host a holiday open-house, in which you’ll receive guests morning, noon, and night for at least three but as many as seven days. Basically, every member of your family living in the general vicinity will drop by (and by the way, almost all of them live in the general vicinity), as will most of your close friends and a few of your colleagues. They’ll all bring their families, and you’ll be expected to not only have a table laden for them— a whole roasted or boiled sheep’s back, a never-ending supply of meat dumplings, an assortment of salads and dairy products, fruits, pastries and other sweets, as well as a selection of spirits—but to present them with gifts. Oh, and you’ll need to be dressed up. Also, you’ll need to figure out when, in the midst of all this, you’ll find time to leave your home and visit all of them. Stressed yet?

If you’re nodding yes, you can imagine why, though most of my teachers say they love Tsagaan Sar and consider it to be not only Mongolia’s most important but also their favorite holiday, they also have some ambivalence when it comes to all the work it entails. Though Tsagaan Sar typically falls sometime between late January and the end of February (this year it was February 19-21), families begin their preparations weeks, sometimes even a month or two, in advance.

But even with all this advance planning? Tsagaan Sar still hits Mongolian towns like a blizzard hitting Manhattan. I’m not kidding: two days before the holiday, every supermarket in Bayankhongor was overrun with people. Lines backed up at the checkout counters, snaking around the aisles. Shelves were cleared of bread and candy. I had a few creative gifts ideas in mind for my friends—nope, gone. And no joke, the ATMs were running out of money. (If you’re interested, here’s a little infographic on what the average Mongolian spends for Tsaagan Sar. Keep in mind the exchange rate of about 1,800 tugriks to the dollar. Also keep in mind that the average annual income in Mongolia is nowhere near that of the average American’s. Then you’ll understand why many families actually take out loans to cover the cost of this celebration).

Here are just a few of the tasks that go on behind the scenes for a single family in the making of this holiday:

  • Making dumplings. Most families will make anywhere between 700 and a thousand buuz, or meat-filled dumplings. You read that right—700 to a thousand. Buuz are the primary staple in the Tsagaan Sar diet, and it’s said that Mongolians consume in three days what they would normally eat in three months. Most of my teachers estimate that to be about 15 buuz per person per day, but we’ve heard numbers much, much higher. A fellow PCV in a more rural soum said she visited so many homes, she was served 87 buuz on day one alone. It made me queasy just thinking about it. Usually buuz are prepared a few weeks in advance, with the whole family pitching in to help. The dumplings are then frozen until time to serve. Here’s a fun fact: My friend Dashka helped me make 150 buuz this year (who am I kidding, she made them and I sort of helped) and we needed two kilos, or around four-and-a-half pounds of meat.
  • Boiling an entire sheep’s back, including the fatty tail. This is called uuts in Mongolian, and forms the centerpiece of the Tsagaan Sar table (you’ll also see it at any Mongolian wedding). Interestingly, it’s not fully consumed until after the holiday—during Tsagaan Sar itself, only small hunks are sliced off for tasting during people’s visits. In a few of the homes I visited, large portions of beef were used instead of sheep. Either way, uuts on the communal table is said to represent prosperity.
  • Preparing a plate of boov (large biscuits made of flour), aruul (dried cheese curds), and candy. Biscuits get stacked on a plate or bowl in triangular or square arrangements, three, five, seven or more layers high (but always an odd number). Layers of aruul and candy fill the well, stabilizing the stack, and also decorate the top.

    A full Tsagaan Sar table - uuts in front, boov plate in back

    A full Tsagaan Sar table – uuts in front, boov plate in back

  • Buying gifts—boxes and boxes of gifts. So this works a little differently than we’re used to in the States. Instead of bringing gifts with you to present to your hosts when you visit their homes, at Tsagaan Sar it’s the hosts who present gifts to their guests. The gifts can be simple, anything from a nice bar of chocolate to a small bottle of hand lotion to a pair of Mongolian cashmere socks. But in general, especially on the first day, families will give at least two or three gifts to each of their guests. One of my teachers even gave me a gorgeous piece of Mongolian art. That adds up when you realize that families can host as many as twenty or thirty people each day. Fortunately, it’s not expected that the presents be wrapped. Although I didn’t host people in my home this year, I still wanted to present gifts to my host family and teachers. Full disclosure, however, I wasn’t aware of the multi-gift tradition, and only got boxes of candy or small notebooks for everyone. I understand I got a big ‘pass’ as a foreigner, but I have to say I feel compelled to step up my game next year.
  • Preparing your Tsagaan Sar clothing. Tsagaan Sar is the one time of year when everyone wears their national Mongolian costume. In most cases, this means a silk or cotton deel (long, belted robe-like overcoat), sometimes topped by a silk khantaaz (vest). Some people, like me, enlist help to have them made; November to February are the most stressful, hectic months for the local seamstresses. Same goes for bootmakers. In January, I was fitted for a pair of traditional Mongolian boots but was told I’d gotten my order in just in time: they were running out of material and after mine, wouldn’t be able to make any more until March.

    Cousins in beautiful deels and khantaaz, made by their moms

    Cousins in beautiful deels and khantaaz, made by their moms

  • Cleaning the house. No, REALLY cleaning the house. Mongolians are already pretty devoted to keeping their homes clean, but the days leading up to Tsagaan Sar are like a national Spring Cleaning observance. In fact, Tsagaan Sar eve, known as bituun, is traditionally devoted to scrubbing down every surface of the home, inside and out, and in the countryside, herders will also clean their livestock enclosures. But bituun is about more than just keeping a tidy home. Bituun refers to the ‘dark moon,’ and is a time of shutting down the old year. It’s said that it’s a time to sweep away anything that you don’t want to carry forward into the new year—mistakes are forgotten and people are expected to let go of any grudges or feelings of ill will they may have toward one another. I noted in my last post that tsagaan, or white, may represent the color of the moon at Lunar New Year, the color of the new sky, or even the abundance of dairy products in spring. But it’s also said to represent purity. Tsagaan Sar is truly an opportunity to be cleansed, and to start over with a clean slate. It’s a beautiful thing, really. Mongolians believe that how you begin the new year dictates how you’ll live for the rest of it. A pure beginning is considered to be an auspicious beginning. And who doesn’t want to begin auspiciously?

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