There are so many traditions wrapped up in Mongolian holidays, it’s hard to disseminate that information without lengthy essays. With the recent celebration of Tsagaan Sar, I got to see many of these traditions up close, and even got to participate in a few. One of the more interesting ones is the way men greet one another (and sometimes, how they greet women and how women greet each other, although it is less common).
During training, we were told of essential items for a man to have in Mongolia’s herding heyday: A hat, a knife, a hunting rife, a pipe (which is stored in his boot), a saddle, and a snuff bottle (хөөрөг). While I am fascinated by the craftsmanship involved in some of the more ornately created pipes, it was the snuff bottle that caught my attention.
With Tsagaan Sar approaching, I took it upon myself to find a snuff bottle. My friend had given me a small puck of menthol snuff, so I felt I was ahead of the game. After many failed shopping excursions, I finally received one: From the father of my friend. It was one of the smaller ones, easily cradled in my fingers, accompanied with a purple cloth in which to hold it. It was a beautiful looking bottle, and I thanked him for it. Then, we exchanged bottles.
A common greeting for men on holidays it to exchange snuff bottles. You place your bottle on your fingers, just above the palm, and cradle it gently. The other person you are greeting does the same with their bottle, or, if they don’t have one, they reach out like they would for a handshake. You then place your bottle into their palm, and they do the same for you. It is important to pass the bottle with two hands (most just put their second hand on their elbow when exchanging; some clasp your hand with both of theirs). You take off the lid, and have two options:
1. Just crack the lid and take a small sniff with each nostril.
2. Use the little scoop on the end of the lid and get a more sizable sampling of snuff to inhale.
Once you finish, you return the bottle the same way you received it. It’s a short exchange, nothing to dawdle over. I placed the bottle back inside its cloth, wrapped it neatly, and stored it in my deel pocket.
For the rest of Tsagaan Sar, I was able to exchange my snuff bottle with every man I saw. Everyone seemed to have a snuff bottle to exchange with me. Even some of the women I saw had their own snuff bottles: Ornately decorated, usually metal, and quite petite. It’s one of those those things that can be easily overlooked, but when you put the effort to recognize and participate in the tradition, it makes a world of difference with the people you are with. When I exchanged bottles with my supervisor’s husband, she was surprised I even knew about it.
“Sometimes, I think you are more Mongolian than me.”
I’m pretty sure I’m not, but I appreciate the sentiment, all the same.