After circling the ovoo three times with his offerings, the man looked back upon his village. He unscrewed the red coca-cola cap to the bottle that he now used for milk, and thrusted the bottle forward. Across the blue hue of twilight’s last hurrah, I could see the milk slosh momentarily before being launched into the air. Instantly, it became snow.
In Mongolia, there are many holidays and festivals, but the two most celebrated events are Naadam and Tsagaansar. Naadam occurs in July, and is the festival of manly sports. Archery, horse-racing, and wrestling, are on full display alongside bowls of airag (fermented mare’s milk) and stacks of khoshuur (battered and fried meat pockets). Tsagaansar is the celebration of a new year. It is determined by the Mongolian Lunar Calendar, and its name literally translates to White Moon. It is a time for cleansing and renewal. While the official holiday has three days of rest from work and other obligations, the visiting of friends and family usually lasts for one to two weeks. Preparations for Tsagaansar begin in January, when families take time to deep clean their homes, and make hundreds, sometimes thousands of buuz (dumplings). All of these preparations fortunately align with a long winter break for students across the country, meaning that there are plenty of hands to assist with household chores. As the holiday neared, I could feel the social gears of my village slowly coming to a halt. Students began to leave early for the countryside, there were lower turnouts for my community classes, and the normal bustling around town seemed to have turned into a homeward hum.
This Tsagaansar, I returned to Baruunkharaa: my first home in Mongolia. Arriving on Tsagaansar’s eve, I dragged open my former hasha’s green metal gate, and ran across the snow covered yard to greet my Mongol eej. She asked me about my journey and eagerly led me inside of our familiar home. Per tradition, my former host family had set their kitchen table with a wide assortment of treats. Candy and fruit lay piled on fine bowls and plates, alongside a large chest cavity of cured beef and a five layer tower of Ul Buuv. The buuv is a traditional pastry whose number of stacks corresponds to a family’s status. State dignitaries have a stack of nine, elders have stacks of seven, middle-aged households have five, and young families have three. The stacks are always an odd number since each stack represents fortune and misery. On top of the monument of butter-pastry deliciousness, are many different kinds of aaruul – dried milk curds. Dairy products like aaruul are eaten on Tsagaansar to supplement the time of renewal. Eating white foods is symbolic of purifying what is dark.
Upon entering my former home, my eyes had not yet focused on the traditional spread, rather, they searched for a little six year old by the name of Iderjavkhlan. Just when I felt my stomach dropping in disappointment, he popped up from behind the kitchen table with his arms thrown high into the air. He ran over and gave me a big hug. After which, I took a good look at his smiling face and pinched his glowing cheeks. “Ideree, you have teeth!” I exclaimed in awe.
While in Baruunkharaa, I greeted the new year’s first sun on a mountain peak with my father, my grandpa, several men from our community, and all of our collective offerings. I traveled to extended family members’ homes, and greeted them as they came to reciprocally visit ours. With each home visited, I left stuffed with a belly full of buuz, an armful of little presents, and a little higher blood alcohol content. After several practice sessions with my little brother and many failed attempts with relatives and friends, I finally got the hang of Tsagaansar’s traditional greeting. Younger arms support the arms of an elder, and each cheek gets a sniff or a kiss while saying something along the lines of “Are you rested,” or “Happy New Year.”
Amidst the many cultural and learning experiences of the week, I found myself in awe at the little and great changes that had passed since the summer. Munkhbaatar and Bolor’s baby was born last month. Wild, long-haired toddler Ganzaya, now sported a buzz cut, indicating a recent hair cutting ceremony. The shy but face-kissing puppy on the other side of town, has grown and hides when people draw near. Cousin Eegi got fat.
It was truly wonderful to be so graciously accepted by my former host family, our extended relatives, and many community members. Nine of our twelve health volunteers returned home to visit, and many of us progressed through town to visit each others’ families. We made toasts, reminisced on good times, played games, and had stand-offs with dumplings that simply never seemed to disappear. Three day buuz count: 96.