“Tsagaan Sar is like Halloween and Thanksgiving – except when you go trick-or-treating, instead of candy, you get Thanksgiving dinner at each house.”
-Andrew (Fellow Peace Corps Mongolia Volunteer)
To celebrate the lunar new year, Mongolians take three (or many, many more) days to visit relative’s houses. At each house, you are fed buuz, the Mongolian traditional food that resembles a steamed dumpling, and given some alcohol to consume. The host is required to give the guests a small gift. Sometimes, it’s something like socks, chocolates, or phone credits. Sometimes, it’s far more elaborate. It all depends on the family. You talk, laugh, enjoy one another’s company, and move onto the next home. The feasting continues as long as there are buuz and family to visit. Sometimes friends drop by. Since I have no family here, I got to visit quite a few homes to see how different families celebrate the holiday. Armed only with my Sriratcha sauce, I ventured forth into the unknown.
Bituun is the eve before the first night of Tsagaan Sar. That’s the only real way I can describe it. I visited one of my co-worker’s homes. The men sat quietly and watched some Mongolian wrestling on TV while the ladies chatted. More people were supposed to come, but they never did. I was the only person wearing a deel. Quite mellow.
Buuz count: 7
The first night I ended up going into the countryside outside of my city. After about 30 minutes of driving through snow, we arrived at a small pair of gers inside a makeshift wooden fence, surrounded by vast tracts of white nothingness. There was a small horse stable (a shack with a rope hung up that the horses were tied to) and many, many goats. I met the father and greeted him, and he invited me to sit in the most prestigious spot in the ger: Right next to him. He was quite intoxicated, and apologized for this. I tried my best to talk with everyone, seeing as only my friend could speak English. I received a snuff bottle, which was a very thoughtful gift. I only stayed for an hour, because had I stayed longer, it would have turned into a slumber party.
Buuz count: 13
The second day/night I visited three homes. Each had their own bread pyramid going on; a common sight at important events. My one co-worker had one made entirely of aarul (dried yogurt). I got asked many questions about America, and I answered them as best I could. They served me airag (fermented mares milk), so I took a few sips. The milk is too sour for me, but the father drank it like it was going out of style. At the last house, I visited my co-worker’s parents, aged 81 and 91. They warned me about the dangers of going out at night, and told me to be careful. They invited me back to celebrate Naadam with them in the summer, which was very nice.
Buuz count: 32
In the morning, all of my school’s employees got together to greet one another. Since most teachers are busy with their families, it was a nice way for everyone to say hello to one another without having to visit each other’s homes. They also drank quite a bit of airag.
No one really seemed to be doing much in the city, so I visited my neighbor. We ate buuz, salads, and fruit together. There was also an old Mongolian black and white film on in the back that had English subtitles, so I gazed upon that for a bit. It had to do with political intrigue in the 1300s, support for the Dalai Llama, and I’m pretty sure it was supposed to explain the origin of the soyombo. Fascinating, all around. My neighbor, who is also one of my co-workers, had her daughter give me some sheep ankle bones in a petite bag. I thanked them and returned home a little later.
Buuz count: 41
Some people in the countryside visit six or seven homes in a single day. They say to be polite, at each home you are supposed to eat at least three buuz and have three shots of alcohol. I don’t think that’s really enforced, but it’s a good rule of thumb. It was delightful to see everyone’s families, and to be invited back for more visits. This is a holiday I think many who are not Mongolian can get behind.