After the long Tsagaan Sar break, all schools have a “wear your deel to school day.”
A deel, if you remember, is Mongolia’s traditional clothing that is worn in the countryside and during holidays such as Tsagaan Sar during the winter and Nadaam during the summer.
There is nothing more adorable then seeing small children in their deels. At my school, there were more younger students strutting about in their deels then the older high school students.
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Students also played shagai, an ankle bone game.
When you toss the ankle bones, the four shagai positions are from left to right: camel, horse, sheep, and goat.
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Another game students played is when you throw an ankle bone into the air and with the same hand try to swipe up as many ankle bones from the floor before you catch the falling ankle bone. If you successfully catch the ankle bone, you keep the ankle bones you swiped.
Tsagaan Sar felt like a race that began weeks in advance. Stores were being emptied out, I had to wait 30 minutes in a line at the ATM as a dead goat was being shoved into my back, and many folk from the countryside came in for weekend shopping trips. I heard the word “Opoc” (Russia) being whispered as I stealthy weaved through the crowds.
What is Tsagaan Sar?
Tsagaan Sar is Mongolia’s Lunar New Year.
Because this is a brand new holiday for all of us, Peace Corps prepared us with what to expect and taught us the proper greetings. Below are just three examples:
Сар шинийн мэнд хүргэе! – Happy Tsagaan Sar!
Сайхан шинэлээрэй! – Have a good Tsagaan Sar!
Сар шиндээ сайхан шинж байна уу? – Are you having a good Tsagaan Sar?
In my new winter deel, I visited five homes where I stuffed myself like a glutton. It was the epitome of being fat and happy.
Every Mongolian household puts together a display of food on the eve of Tsagaan Sar. The layers of all the bread represent happiness and sadness. Always beginning and ending the year in happiness. On top are white food items such as sugar cubes, aaruul, and white mints. The color white represents the moon. Then there is a massive chunk of beef guests can carve from, fruit, and a bowl of sweets.
What does Tsagaan Sar entail?
Food– So much food! The main entre is buuz. Every family makes over a thousand buuz. There are also more plates of meat with slices of pickles plus chocolate. You can drink milk tea, airag, vodka, beer, and juice.
Two weeks before the holiday, I went to the supermarket. The atmosphere of the supermarket was much like a gladiatorial fight. People were fighting over boxes; straight, organized lines at the cashier no longer existed. People were trying to step in front of each other while old women showed no mercy as they shoved themselves to the very front; the last couple of eggs, bags of bread and apples, and packages of chocolate chip cookies were swiftly scooped up. But before I got caught up in all of it, I promptly made a u-turn and bee- lined it to another less raucous supermarket. Thus, I had to stock my kitchen with food as if the apocalypse was approaching. Later, on 6 March, stores still didn’t have dairy products or bread.
Family– Tsagaan Sar is all about visiting family. Depending on how large a family is… and Mongolian families are large…you can spend two-weeks or more visiting each others gers and apartments. Visits can be short or long depending on how busy your day is.
Winter deels – Tsagaan Sar is a blast to the past honoring Mongolian tradition by wearing a deel. Seamstresses are busy months in advance creating new winter deels for men and women, boys and girls.
Presents– After every visit, Mongolians give presents to every visitor before they leave. It can be a variety of items such as candy, cookies, money, soap, and makeup.
Some Peace Corps Volunteers have described the holiday as being a lot like Halloween (going out and visiting houses), Thanksgiving (eating a lot of food), and Christmas (giving and receiving presents) all rolled up into one big holiday.
My school also had a ceremony.
A Buddhist monk attended the ceremony. We were all given three white food items: a wafer, a peppermint, and a sugar cube. As the monk chanted and incense wafted up into the air, we had to circle our hands, while holding the items, when directed by the monk. I was very close to chomping down on the wafer beforehand but quickly stopped myself when I saw no one else was eating.
Now its Spring!
Tsagaan Sar also symbolizes the end of winter and the beginning of spring. The weather already feels warmer. It won’t be shorts weather until May or June but the sun is shining bright.