Have yourself a Merry Little White Month

Амар байна уу? is the phrase I heard 1,459 times during the Mongolian holiday of Tsagaan Sar (White Month).  This is the BIGGEST holiday of the year and people begin preparing for it weeks if not a month or more in advance.  It can be seen as a combination of Christmas and Thanksgiving with a twist.

Tsagaan Sar is the Tibetan Lunar New Year.  It marks the end of the long Mongolian winter and means that warm temperatures are on their way.  This is a very ritualistic holiday and many customs and traditions are imbued into the fabric of the holiday.

This year Tsagaan Sar occurred from February 22-26 (officially).  There is a sort of Tsagaan Sar check list which might look a little like this:

  • clean the shit out of your home.  Leave nothing uncleaned
    • Look, I love cleaning but when you do such a deep cleaning you realize how effing dirty you are and it is depressing.  I just dragged my cat across the floor and called it good.
  • Make a million buuz (meat dumplings)
    • Umm......I don't know how to make these.  So I made 3 dozen cookies and some pumpkin bread.
  • Have a lot of "white food" (dairy products) in your home to serve
    • I did make milk tea and sucked on some aaruul (the dried milk curd)
  • Have gifts to give to visitors
    • These gifts can range anywhere from skin bleaching cream, phone units, bowls, children etc. I am too poor and not very creative.  So I gave all my guests post it pads (Thanks 3M You are the BEST!)
  • Prepare your best deel to be worn for the holiday
    • I only have one deel that was given to me by my host family.  It is massive......so big in fact that I could carry a baby to full term and no one would know.  Maybe I can market this to Gap Maternity.  
Once you have completed this check list you can prepare for Bitvvn (bituun) which is the night before Tsagaan Sar begins.

Since this is such a major holiday the Peace Corps gave us at least 2, if not 3, trainings for this holiday.  We were taught the proper greeting which is "Amar bain uu?" and taught the proper arm greeting.  This arm greeting involves both people extending out their perpendicular to their body with palms up.  If the person is older than you, you put your arms beneath theirs to support them.  If they are younger than you, they go beneath you.  If the person is about the same age, one arm goes on top, and the other goes beneath.  You also smell each person on each cheek.  When doing this greeting you start with the oldest person in the room and then go down in age.  Ready......set.......Tsagaan Sar!


This is the night before Tsagaan Sar begins.  All of the family gathers together and they eat white foods like Aaruul, milk tea and buuz.  The sheep sacrum is prepared and placed on the table.  The ENTIRE rear end of the sheep is placed in the center of the table in all of its fatty glory.  The goal of bitvvn is to not leave hungry.

Here is how I spent my bitvvn:  I got together with two other volunteers in UB.  We wanted to go eat Mr. Chicken to get the bucket of chicken and the gossip magazine.  Due to the holiday this fine establishment was closed.  So we ate some food at a nearby pub and then went back to a volunteer's home.  Happy Bitvvn!  Also during Tsagaan Sar many stores are closed so you might go hungry.

Tsagaan Sar: Day One
It is traditional that all the people of the town should gather on a high mountain with an Ovoo (traditional holy site).  From there they greet the first sun rise of the new year with shouting and offerings of milk.  I think this occurred some time around 8am on February 22.  I promptly slept through this but ambition did set in so I got out of bed at 10 and ate an entire package of Reeses.

In the countryside the first day of Tsagaan Sar is spent visiting your immediately family....mothers, fathers etc.  In UB it is all about getting an invitation to see someone......you can't just go to their home without an invitation.  After much begging, hint dropping and crying I scored an invitation for the first day.  It was with a teacher from my school.  I went there at 4:00 wearing my maternity deel and my stomach was prepared for the onslaught of vodka, buuz and milk tea.

Thank goodness it was a younger teacher and this was a relaxed atmosphere.  We barely greeted each other and mainly just sat back and chatted for about 30 minutes.  Then she gave me my gift of phone units which was my cue to scram.

Tsagaan Sar: Day Two
This was February 23.  Kitty and I had no invitations so I re-cleaned my home in preparation of my students coming the next day.  I was determined to have my home so clean that Chinggis Khan himself would be happy with me and not invade my home.  This time I washed everything in my home including all my pans, my oven, my fridge and myself.  Finally after a long day of cleaning I went to bed with dreams of buuz dancing through my head.

Tsagaan Sar: Day Three
This is the day when it is fair game to visit anyone.  So I invited some students over.  Their invitation was for 1:00.  Before they could come over I had to go to my school to have a Tsagaan Sar gathering there.  The maternity deel was put back on and I went to school at 10:00am.  This is where things went really bad for this Tsagaan Sar newbie.  I greeted everyone the WRONG way!  Instead of "supporting" my elders I made them support me (ie. I put my arms on top of theirs). I also didn't smell their cheeks.  I kissed them like I was in Europe.......even the men who were a little uncomfortable.  It is also customary to pass around snuff bottles.  My director's wife handed me a snuff bottle and I thought it was a gift so instead of smelling  it and giving it back I promptly put it in my pocket.  During this visit I also knocked over a shot glass of vodka and gagged on some gristle in my meat. Eventually my director's wife asked me for the snuff bottle back so I awkwardly pulled it out of my pocket.   I tried my best to save my dignity and the holiday so I bolted to prepare for my students to come over.

I set out my trays of cookies and pumpkin bread and made milk tea.  I hid Kitty in the bathroom and prepared to be a good host.   Finally the magic hour came and so did my students.  We greeted one another and sat down to our cookies, bread and milk tea.  Half of the students liked the pumpkin bread and the others took one bite and stopped.  After chatting in my limited Mongolian I got out the gifts of Post-It Notes and distributed them.  My students looked at me awkwardly, said thank you and went on their way.  After cleaning up I proceeded to get back in bed wearing my maternity deel (so damn comfortable and roomy!) and listened to Jingle Cats sing O Come All Ye Faithful.  It was magical.

Tsagaan Sar: Day Four
I decided to find a traditional Tsagaan Sar by going to the countryside.  I visited my friend, another volunteer, in Bayanchandmani.  It is a small town North of UB by about 60-or-so kilometers.  Coincidentally, my counterpart Oogii was born there so she was visiting her family.  So I piled in to a meeker and went to the countryside.  I went to my friend's ger and witnessed a 12-year-old kid drive a car.  Alone.   Just him.  Then I Tsagaan Sar visited his haashaa family and scored a sweet bowl, a towel and some phone units.  It was awesome!

At 4:00 that afternoon I was invited to visit my counterpart and her family.  So my friend came with me.  He was well versed in Tsagaan Sar since he lived in the countryside.  I managed to not break quite as many rules this time.  Oogii gave me a gorgeous hvrem which is a Mongolian jacket that I can wear over my maternity deel.  It is fabulous!  I ate many buuz, bansh and drank some sort of fruit moonshine.

Finally, I went home the next day and my Tsagaan Sar was over.  I curled up in bed and practiced my cat massage skills on Kitty while watching more cats singing Christmas songs like this gem: What Child is This


My counterpart Oogii, on the right holding her son.  Sitting next to her is her mother and father.

Oogii in her gorgeous deel after giving my new, gorgeous hvrem.  I love it!

Compare it to my maternity deel:

Just to add to the holiday cheer here is me wearing my gorgeous snowflake tights, holiday sweater and Toms.  Tis the season to be flamboyant!

Okay......so thanks for reading this blog.  Go celebrate your own Tsagaan Sar and then watch this video: Cat Massage


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