Сагаан hараар! Сагаалганаар! Happy New New Year! The White Month is here! Welcome to the year of the black snake!
Just six weeks into what is turning out to be a fantastic 2013, all across Buryatia, we had a national holiday to celebrate the start of the New Year by the lunar calendar on February 11, the start of the White Month. The holiday hype has been steadily growing since October, when my students first began to tell me about the mysterious Sagaalgan, slowly taking over every single commercial on TV and even infesting grocery stores with huge sales on white foods. It was impossible not to be excited.
Celebrations began on Saturday with what is known as Дугжууба (“Dugzhuuba”). Essentially, Dugzhuuba is a cleansing ritual for the New Year. Through the meticulous cleaning of your home (I tidied up on Thursday and decided that counted) and of your body and soul, you rid yourself of everything bad and leave it all behind you. In the afternoon, you’re supposed to make dough out of flour and water and rub it all over your body. Then you shape it into the figure of a little person (mine was distinctly dough-ball shaped). This dough-boy represents all your illnesses, grief, and corruption. Make sure you wrap him up in a nice, environmentally-toxic plastic baggy, and bring him with you to the nearest datsan later that evening, where you will add him to a heap of other plastic-clad dough-boys in the kostyor pyres to be burned.
At sunset, I headed over with some friends to the datsan. We joined hundreds of others in the traditional circle around the monastery, lining up to spin the prayer-scrolls and ring the wish-bell and worship all the zodiac statues and sprinkle coins everywhere.*
Then we entered the temple with the intention of just circling around and paying our respects. But the Dugzhuuba prayer service was in session, so hundreds of people were crammed in the datsan with no means for escape—so we did this in the typical Russian толпа-fashion. Cue the self-consciousness and discomfort that comes from being the only obviously-non-Buddhist observer witnessing this very intimate and spiritual religious ceremony. It was a fascinating ceremony, and I feel blessed to have had the opportunity to be there—though, to be honest, I didn’t understand a thing, and I felt more uncomfortable and out-of-place than spiritually moved.
The lamas were all sitting at their “desks” (for lack of a better word). Some were reading or reciting texts and prayers. Some were chanting or singing (there was definitely some throat-singing going on). One was occasionally gonging a gong. One was occasionally ringing a bell-type thing. One was ceremonially placing red blocks on an altar-type thing. And all this was happening simultaneously. It sounded like a bunch of old men mumbling and singing and talking over one another all at once. And none of it was in a language I understood. Maybe no one present understood, for all I know. People that still had some semblance of personal space would bow and whatnot at the gong-sounds. After a while, they let us complete our circle, and we found ourselves back outside as the last rosy and green rays of sun were vanishing on the dusky horizon.
Once darkness had settled in and the masses had all poured forth from the temple, it was time for the kostyor (bonfire) to begin. Tremors of anticipation radiated through the crowds. Enter a lama, whom I couldn’t see in the crowded darkness, but whose presence and progress was announced by a cadence of drumrolls and gongs. And suddenly, the two pyres, filled with hundreds of dough-effigies, symbolizing all our sins, anxieties, and misfortunes, went up in a whoosh of flame. The crumbs of our everything bad burned up and were scattered on the wind (along with a good dose of cancerous plastic-toxins), symbolically left behind in the year of the dragon so the new year will be full of only happiness, healthiness, and love. Cue the fireworks. Big ones, directly overhead, so close that burning chunks of debris occasionally fell into the crowd.
With two massive bonfires in front of me and booming majestic fireworks behind, I felt the awe and excitement of the New Year take hold of me. I realize I just had a New Year not too long ago. But this is a New New Year. Gone are the anxieties and bad feelings. Here are the fireworks and burning dough-boys. All my life, I’ll be able to look back on this weekend, this night, and remember the year I had two New Years—the year I literally burned the old year to ashes—the year I went to a bonfire and watched fireworks in February, thinking that -30 degrees really isn’t so bad.
On Sunday, I went to see a movie. The original plan was to see Les Mis—but, faced with a much more once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, the plan changed. For in no other city, at no other time, will anyone ever get the chance to see the movie I saw instead: a film made in Ulan-Ude in honor of our beloved holiday and national dish—a film about buuzy! It was a comedy about opening a poznaya (a pozy/buuza restaurant). And I am proud to say that I was actually able to understand the humor—both on a linguistic level and on a contextual, sociocultural level. I guess I’ve lived amongst Russians and Buryats long enough to understand what’s funny about them. That’s actually really impressive.
The night before New Year’s, you’re supposed to stay up all night. Supposedly, the gods come by around 5AM, and if you’re sleeping, they think you’re dead. You need to be awake to meet your gods and greet them with fire. I cheated (though I prefer to think of it as good old American improvisation). I went to bed, but I set an alarm for 5 just in case (honestly, I was hoping for fireworks). And when nothing exciting happened outside my window, I went back to sleep.
When I awoke, it was Sagaalgan! Huzzah! In the afternoon, I went with one of my students to check out the festivities on Ploshad Sovietov (or, as I like to call it, Lenin-Head Square). It was a buuzy festival! Picture it. Ice statues everywhere, ice slides, a veritable ice city. Ponies galore. Little booths with babushkas selling presents and souvenirs. Yurtas set up all over the place selling buuzy and Mongolian tea. Starfish-babies being dragged around on sledges. A girl dressed up in a buuza costume. A giant pink dragon chilling with a Belorussian Ded Moroz. Zodiac animals dancing around. A stage, filled with speeches and well-wishes and competitions and traditional reenactments and singing and dancing. A Yokhor (Buryat folk-dance) flash-mob. And, looming behind it all, above everything, the world’s biggest Lenin head, sneering in eternal disapproval.
Ah, but what is a holiday without copious amounts of food? After the concert, my student and I went back to her dorm for a feast and a half. We stopped for groceries along the way. The original plan was to make a pizza in addition to all the traditional Buryat dishes—though, by the time the buuzy were gone and our stomachs were out to here (gesture), silly things like pizza were long forgotten.**
Sometime in the past couple months, I have apparently become a pro buuza-maker. Whereas my previous buuza-making experience was filled with incessant corrections and you’re-doing-it-wrongs, this time, I was peppered with a barrage of impressed “very goods.” What in November were lousy attempts pathetically struggling to pass for deformed buuzy were now pronounced real, true, beautiful Buryat buuzy.
In addition to piles and piles of juicy boozy, our feast included salad***, a traditional meat-and-potatoes dish, and bread. To drink, we had what I was told is called “assar”—made from meat-broth, a bit of flour, and a mysterious and dubious white substance that may or may not have been salamat (I really have no idea what it is other than it is made from milk, has a rather thick consistency, and is quite sour). If apple pie and peanut butter taste like America, then this assar dish tastes like Buryatia. And for desert, I was treated to a dish that is apparently only made in the nearby Ivolginsky. It’s almost like a combination of bread-pudding and ice cream: served cold, it’s got bread and tvorog (“quark cheese”) and these little dates/raisins and the roots/stems of saranka flowers (a type of lily), producing a flavor and texture that is—much like Sagaalgan itself, and like Buryatia in general—unlike anything I’ve ever experienced—in a good way.
And so the first day of the White Month came to pass—full of white foods and good company. Sagaalgan is a holiday of the senses—see the festivities, smell the fire and food, taste the buuzy and new flavors, hear the chants and the music, touch the soul-cleaning dough, the cold biting your face, feel something powerful in your spirit. And this festival traditionally marks the end of winter’s worst. Spring is coming—there is hope.
*A kopeck’s purpose: I have now realized the point of kopecks. These worthless coins that accumulate needlessly in your wallet are not intended solely for the channeling of your passive aggressive rage at surly cashiers who demand 37 rubles in exact change, but also for Buddhist worship and datsan decoration purposes.
**Arielle gets saucy: The purpose of even mentioning the pizza plan was to spin you this little yarn about my experience as expert pizza-ingredient adviser. After settling on “regular” cheese (pretty much the only option in cheese-buying in these parts), it was time to move on to sauce. And I was faced with the Russian-est of all questions: “Which do Americans like better as pizza sauce: mayonnaise or ketchup?” Yes, that was a serious question, and those were the only two conceivable options. You should have seen the look of surprise and disbelief when I suggested that no American ever eats mayonnaise or ketchup on pizza ever and that all Americans actually prefer pizza with something called “tomato sauce.” It became evident that she had never in her life eaten a pizza made with tomato sauce, had never even heard of tomato sauce being put on a pizza, couldn’t even imagine pizza without puddles of mayonnaise (suddenly, the mayo-lasagna and ketchup-smothered “Caesar-salad” sandwich and fish-flavored potato chips all make so much more sense). We bought both.
*** “Salad”: Ingredients: two packs of instant noodles, one small onion, some chopped raw sausage, and at least 12 gallons of mayonnaise. Note: in Russia, you’re a billion times more likely to find gobs of mayo in a salad than anything even resembling lettuce.