The biggest holiday of the year is celebrated for two days beginning on the eve of the New Year according to the Lunar Calendar, also known as Chinese New Year. Here they call it Tsaagan Sar, which means White Moon or White Month, both of which carry a true meaning. Some of you dreamed of a White Christmas this year. I bet not many of you wished for a White Month of snow and ice. January was a White Month here, and so was December and November. But having snow on the ground 5 months of the year isn’t as difficult as some things. Imagine if Thanksgiving and Christmas were celebrated on consecutive days. That would be hard! I think it’s also a fair comparison to Tsaagan Sar. In this holiday, you have all the family and food obligations of Thanksgiving, combined with the financial and gift giving burden of Christmas.
We are just getting ready to experience our first Tsaagan Sar. From all I’ve heard of it, over half has been about the food. Most of it is white (White Month) and all of it traditional, which off the record many Mongolians have admitted they don’t crave. At the center of a variety of milk and yogurt products, white in color, stand the National Dish of meat dumplings called Bodes (one syllable). Most that we’ve had have tasted good. But we’ve been warned that families make them up in advance and into the wee hours. The unwary diner may discover Bodes filled with mutton, or mutton fat.
Tonight we had our Tsaagan Sar party with our language school. Our teachers rented a restaurant near the school. The highlight of the evening was the entertainment. One man dressed in a colorful traditional hat, boots and robe called a Dell, played the Horsehead fiddle. It has a horse hair bow like a violin, but its strings of which there are only two are also made of horse hair! After he played and sang us a song, another man joined him. He turned out to be a Mongolian Throat Singer. This craft is indescribable. It looked like he was holding his breath and pushing air out at the same time. His puffed up like a frog or Dizzy Gillespie when he plays trumpet. But his voice seemed to produce multiple tones at once, and also sounded a little like a mouth harp or kazoo. Renee thought it sounded like computerized robot-like tones that synthesizers sometimes produce.
The restaurant made Bodes with Beef, which were quite tasty. Their milk tea hot drink, a National Beverage called Cuutai Tsai, (again white in color) was also very tasty. We also got to sample the variety of yogurt products we will be seeing when we visit homes of Mongolian families Monday and Tuesday. (Jan 30,31)
By Wednesday, we will have each eaten probably 40 Bodes and more candy and sweetened milk products than is good for us. Sound like Thanksgiving to you?
Well its also like Christmas because the host of the house you visit gives each guest a present, which you cannot refuse, even though they say many people go into debt each year trying to pull together presents and food for the big festival, which privately many Mongolians admit is a burden and makes what should be a happy time a difficult one.
This week our church knowing the financial difficulty of the coming holiday, visited scores of poor families with a small cash gift and some holiday food. Many of the families had handicapped or old or sick family members to care for.
The first house we entered was the furthest out of town I’d been in yet, in a district that translates “foothills plateau”, maybe 3 miles from town. We entered what looked like a 1950 mobile home. There was a grown man, probably 30, crawling on the ground with his elbows. Soon I could see he was handicapped. We could smell a plate of Tsaagan Car food cooking on the wood stove. They served us a generous portion of this kind of (white) yogurt pudding with raisins.
The second house, and third, brought a new experience for me. The man of the house, probably 65 or so, came in from sawing firewood by hand, reached into a drawer and pulled out something in a little silk bag. I didn’t know what was coming when he handed me a little bottle kind of carefully with both hands. It was his bottle of snuff. I had a hard time handling the thing in the customary way, and also had difficulty getting any snuff out of the bottle. Finally I did, and got a whiff of what reminded me of when my grandfather would visit our house with his snuff. Same stuff, basically.
Many of the houses were not so well off, though. Many of the families were living in Gers, white round felt tents. Though they are small, they are famously warm. Just a little wood or coal in the stove is all it takes. One lady lived in a Ger in her wheelchair with her grandkids. She was jovial over the jars of pickles that she got. The kids watched TV while we prayed for her and her family at her request.
Probably the hardest visit was a lady who used to regularly attend church. We found her lying on a spring bed with no mattress, only a few blankets, in a cold, cold house. But she wasn’t complaining. She was losing her sight. It looked like trying to see us hurt her eyes. She asked us to pray and blessed us with feeling. I ask you to pray for her. They called her something close to Margaret. She looked about 65, but is probably younger.
So as in our native part of the world, holidays here are rich in tradition but can prove difficult. I’m sure there are some deeper meanings to their holiday that I won’t perceive. I’m hopeful that some of the deeper meanings of our holidays like Christmas and Easter may soon bring hope to those who need and seek it here. I hope through people we meet and visit this week, God’s Kingdom will expand and his redemption and mercy rest here until Jesus comes again to claim those who are waiting for him. And I hope you and I meet many of them there in heaven or on the way there, in the air. Until then we’ll visit them over white meat dumplings and salty milk tea.