Holy crap…I'm living in Mongolia!

tsagaan sar: the main event

Host and guest, exchanging snuff bottles

Host and guest, exchanging snuff bottles

This is the third post in a series about Mongolia’s Tsagaan Sar celebration. You can read parts one and two here and here. Or, if you’re tired of all this reading and just want to get straight to the pictures, tune in tomorrow when I’ll be wrapping up the series with a collection of my favorite images from the week.

At last, the buuz are prepared, the gifts purchased, the house clean. Now what?

Tsagaan Sar eve, or bituun, is a relatively low-key evening, as people wrap up their cooking, cleaning, and other preparations. A little calm before the storm, and perhaps the last chance to relax. I was in my room hanging a little laundry, when two members of my host family knocked on my door—both bringing me plates of buuz for my evening meal. Thus began the days of meat and vodka. I ate three or four, had a cup of tea, and got to bed early, though I’m pretty sure my neighbors were up for several more hours. (I woke up for about ten minutes at midnight, to when my deel was delivered.) The next day, following our pilgrimage to the mountaintop to offer our milk blessings to the gods, our house visits began.

The first thing I wanted to understand about the visits is how people know when to show up at each other’s homes. Because, as I’d received invitations in the weeks leading up to the holiday, no one had ever suggested an arrival time to me. They’d simply say Come to my home on the second day. Or Come to my home on the third day of Tsagaan Sar. As it turns out, there’s a system: visits are made first to close family, then to friends, and are ordered by age, from oldest to youngest. Thus, as one of my teachers explained to me, if you’re one of the oldest in your family—a grandparent, a parent of adult children, or even an elder sibling—your job on day one of Tsagaan Sar is to stay at home and wait. People will be coming to you. And indeed, our first visit on day one was right next door, to my host emee (grandmother) and her husband.

People had given me some rough descriptions of what I was supposed to do at each home, but like many things in Mongolia, the experience resembled the first time in sixth grade when I was asked to attend a Latin Mass: I didn’t understand a word. I just watched and mimicked what everyone else was doing. When everyone stands up, stand with them. They’re bowing their heads now; bow head. Kneel down. Stand up again. Start walking to the front. Oh, I’m not allowed to take communion? Walk back to the pew like I meant to do that.

Fortunately, I had one advantage over that Catholic service, and that was my host mom giving me periodic verbal cues and sometimes even physically guiding me to where I needed to go. By the end of my first day, I was feeling a lot more confident. So, in the event that you find yourself in Mongolia in February, here’s a quick step-by-step to the Tsagaan Sar home visit:

  1. Zolgokh (The Greeting): When you first enter the ger, you’ll greet all of the members of the family, oldest to youngest. There are four basic steps to this.
    • First, drape your khadag (a long, blue, silk scarf) across your hands. This appears to be optional; sometimes I would see people use it and sometimes I wouldn’t. At first I thought it was something only the host did, so didn’t take mine out, even though I had it with me. But it’s a sign of honor and respect, so next year I plan to use it for every greeting.
    • Next, grasp arms with the person you’re greeting; how you do this depends on your age. If the person you’re greeting is older than you, turn your palms upward, place your arms under theirs (the younger supporting the older), and lightly grasp their elbows. Do the opposite if you’re older.
    • While your arms are intertwined, deliver one of two verbal greetings. If you’re younger, say Амар байна уу (Amar bain uu)? which loosely translates to Are you resting? If you’re older, say Амар сайн уу (Amar sain uu)? which loosely translates to Are you resting well?
    • Lean in and sniff each cheek. Yes, I said sniff. Don’t be afraid; it’s a traditional greeting. Though really, I think people just lean in and gently touch cheeks. Technical pointer: Unless you’re greeting children, don’t make the mistake of kissing people on the cheeks like you’re in France. They will laugh. (Ask me how I know).
  2. Khuurug (The Snuff Bottle): This part of the greeting seems to be initiated by men, once their guests are seated. A man will take a snuff bottle out from a special carrying pouch, and offer it to his guest in his right hand. You will accept the bottle in your right hand; the polite way to do this is to simultaneously touch your left hand to your elbow. With your right thumb, slightly lift the cap of the snuff bottle and lightly sniff the bottle/cap. Replace the cap and hand the bottle back to your host.
  3. Eat, Drink & Converse: Once the greetings are complete, your hosts will put buuz into the steamer to cook, and offer you a series of beverages and other dishes while you wait. First, they’ll serve you a large bowl of fermented camel’s milk. Simply take a few sips and then put it back on the table. That will be followed by milk tea, aruul (dried cheese curds), candy, and an assortment of potato, egg or vegetable salads. They will slice a bit of the uuts (sheep’s back) for you. At some point, you’ll be offered shots of vodka. They might joke and encourage you to put the entire thing back, but you’re under no obligation to do so. The smart person will simply touch the glass to their lips and hand it back to their host. The buuz will be ready in about twenty minutes, and you’ll be served from a heaping plate of them. Take one or two—you’ll be eating these at every home you visit, and you want to avoid meat sweats if at all possible. Enjoy the conversation with your hosts, as well as any of the other guests who’ve arrived at the same time.
  4. Receive & Leave: Once the buuz have been served and you’ve enjoyed some leisurely banter, your host will present you with gifts. Not only is this a lovely gesture, it’s also an ingenious one: it’s your signal that the visit is over, and time for you to leave their home. Stand up to receive your gifts, thank them, and say your goodbyes. You’ve successfully completed your first home visit…time to head to the next!

Day one of Tsagaan Sar is primarily devoted to visiting one’s immediate and extended family. Day two may be a mix of family and friends, while day three and beyond are essentially pick-up days for anyone you weren’t able to get to earlier. Although the holiday is officially only three days long, many were still making their rounds into the following week—especially those with large extended families. Many of my friends also took a day or two to visit family in the countryside.

But if you’re like me, you’re still wondering: How do the visits get scheduled? How do people make sure that when they show up to someone’s home, the family they’re visiting isn’t out visiting someone else? The short answer is, they don’t. As I rode around with my host family during Tsagaan Sar, there were a few times when we’d come to someone’s home and they’d be gone. We’d just get back in the car and head to the next home. We’d roll with it, come back later, or save the visit for the next day—no big deal. Somehow, it all seems to work out.

As I mentioned in my previous post, Tsagaan Sar represents a tremendous amount of work for all involved. (One friend who was helping her parents told me that on day one she was on her feet from 10 AM to 10 PM, hosting more than twelve different families). But I now understand why so many people also say the effort is well worth it. Tsagaan Sar is truly a beautiful time of year when everything in Mongolia slows down and people simply enjoy each other’s company. I felt incredibly honored to be able to take part in the celebration, which seems to me the perfect encapsulation of the most important aspects of Mongolian culture: the value of family and community, the importance of hospitality, the hundreds of ways, big and small, in which people honor one another and show respect, especially to their elders.

Cайхан шинэлээрэй! (Happy Lunar New Year!)

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