Everywhere But Home

News and musings from wherever my crazy life takes me. My body may be back in Illinois, but at least for now, my mind is still in Mongolia.


The Almost-Russian Almost-New Year

The Thursday before my Mongolian Christmas, my teacher class and I played Christmas bingo. Rather than attempt to tell the biblical tale to members of a thoroughly non-Christian culture, I opted to stick with with the holiday’s secular trappings: bells, holly, candles, Santa. I went over the vocabulary before we started, and that went pretty well until I held up a picture of a decorated evergreen and asked what it was.

The teachers conferred with each other, double-checking the words in question. Then Setgel, the star pupil, confidently called out their answer: “New Year’s tree!”

New Year‘s tree? No, I told them firmly, shaking my head. In English, we call it a Christmas tree. They repeated the words dubiously, and we moved on to the next picture. But the vocabulary didn’t stick; every time a winning row included a tree, it was called back to me as a “New Year’s tree.”

I didn’t know it at the time, but I had Russia to thank for the confusion. During its 68 years as a Soviet satellite state, Mongolia (then called the Mongolian People’s Republic) adopted a number of Russian traditions. I don’t know whether Russian yolki were originally associated with Christmas in the days before the Soviet kibosh on religion, but now, as Anna explains, they’re definitely a New Year’s thing.

And as Russi has yolki, Mongolia has шинэ жилийн мод (shine jiliin mod). Christmas isn’t really a thing in a country with so few Christians, but similar-looking traditions, stripped of their religious connotations, have made their way in anyway. I can’t blame the Mongolians for adopting any tradition that incorporates light and sparkly things into their long winters. They celebrate the new year twice – on December 31st with the rest of the world, with champagne and fireworks and drunken parties, and again at Tsagaan Sar, the lunar new year and traditional beginning of spring.

My roommate's duu in front of their шинэ жилиин мод.

My roommate’s duu in front of their шинэ жилиин мод.

The trees themselves vary widely in appearance. My roommate’s extended family had a small one covered in ornaments that closely resembled Western Christmas trees, though the Mongolian love of glitz was also evident in its multicolored fiberoptic inserts. The tree in front of one Erdenet’s shopping centers, by contrast, was not a tree at all, but a cone formed of tinsel garlands and brightly-colored, constantly flashing lights stretched taught between a tall pole at the center and the broken slabs of ice heaped around its base. I’ve seen some lovely specimens of the tradition, but this was not one of them.

I was in for more surprises at my school’s New Year’s celebration. I went home for New Year’s last year, and so I missed the fireworks and ice sculptures and other festivities held in Erdenet’s main square, but not my school’s parties. There aren’t many restaurants in Erdenet, and since they were all booked for the weekend closer to the end of the year, our parties were held on December 23rd.

Yes, parties, plural. We had one in the afternoon for the students, and then a teachers-only party later in the evening. The afternoon party was dry, save for one bottle of champagne (or shampanski, as they call it, in what I assume is the Russian fashion); the evening one was another story altogether, of which I remember about half.

But the afternoon party was memorable primarily for its entertainment. The students put on two dance numbers: one to a wordless, very pop-y version of “Jingle Bells,” another to a slow waltz. Waltzes, while not traditionally Mongolian, are nonetheless a dance party staple, interspersed unpredictably amongst the more expected pop and house music. The Mongolians I’ve asked say they learned waltzes from the Russians, who evidently did not teach them that three-beat dances do not work very well with four-beat music, nor four-beat dances with three-beat music.

We also had an appearance from a familiar character – or rather, an almost-familiar one. American traditions are quite firm on the fact that the jolly man with a big white beard wears red, though I’ve seen Father Christmas wear green in a few English depictions. But blue? I’d never seen Santa wear blue.

Then again, this wasn’t Santa Claus. He was Өвлийн Өвөө (övliin övöö) – Grandfather Winter, who I’d wager is the Mongolian incarnation of Russia’s Ded Moroz.

The white beard looked more than a little out of place in a country where I’ve never seen the elderly go white and very few are capable of growing even straggly little beards. But the fat, jolly grandfather image is plenty Mongolian. And whatever his origin, he was a welcome sight to a girl for whom Christmas would be an ordinary work day.

Even if he didn’t give us presents.

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Today I had an argument with myself over how to wear my hair to church for Christmas Eve.

I got a keratin treatment yesterday because it helps to strengthen and detangle my otherwise brittle and knot-prone hair. It’s something they have to flatiron in, and so yesterday (and today, because I haven’t washed it yet), my hair is straight for the fourth time in my life. That makes it very much a novelty, so on the one hand, I might as well leave it that way for church tonight. Plus it’s better to let the keratin set for two days before you wash it.

On the other, it’s a novelty; it’ll probably be the first time most of the people there have seen me with straight hair, so I’ll be sure to get lots of comments on it. “It looks good straight!” “Why don’t you straighten it more often?”

I don’t want to spend Christmas Eve explaining to people that I don’t straighten it more often because I don’t own a flatiron, and that I don’t own one because I actually like my hair curly. Is that so unheard of, that I like having curly hair? I know they won’t mean it that way, but when people compliment my hair, what I’ll be hearing is, “You look better when you change your appearance. You should do that more often.”

The comment I got most often at my school’s New Year’s party last year was, “Why aren’t you wearing makeup?” It wasn’t enough that I had taken my director up on her gracious offer to let me borrow a dress, and to get my hair curled; without full-out face paint, I merited only comments on the insufficiencies of my appearance. Needless to say, I did not have much fun at that party.

I don’t want to spend Christmas Eve being made to feel (even unintentionally) like I owe it to the world to change what I look like in order to make other people happy, or that it’s absurd for me to actually like how I look. Frustration and resentment are not conducive to the Christmas spirit.

/rant. Maybe now that it’s out there, I can actually get on with the business of cleaning the house and preparing for the holiday.

Merry Christmas.

Merry Christmas from my family, including me in my natural curly-haired state.


Christmas Music

Like many Americans I know, I refuse to acknowledge the existence of Christmas music until after Thanksgiving. I have a number of reasons for this: I want to give Thanksgiving its due as a holiday. I think 24 days is plenty of time to get sick music you’re likely subjected to on an endless and inescapable loop; adding November to the length of that loop is a nauseating thought. I’m a compartmentalist who subdivides files, makes lists to sort out her Facebook friends, and listens to the same children’s books the night of every major holiday, as she has every year since she was a child.

It probably doesn’t help that I hate a lot of the most commonly-played songs.

I despise “Santa Baby.” I can’t tolerate the whiny childish voice of whoever sings “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” and that song by Alvin and the Chipmunks gives me a headache – in fact, I would happily canonize anyone who gets chipmunked music banned. “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” was funny the first time I heard it but has since lost its charm; I can handle “Dominic the Donkey” and “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas” perhaps three times a year.

Lest I spend this entire post Bah Humbug-ing pop-y commercial rubbish, let me hasten to list a few songs I love: “What Child is This?,” “The First Noel,” “Angels We Have Heard On High,” “Do You Hear What I Hear?,” “Silent Night,” “Carol of the Bells.” Carols, in other words – the old religious songs that aren’t about elves or Santa or reindeer. I do love “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” mostly for the line, “you’ve got garlic in your soul,” and that song about fruitcake that the choir at my high school always sang will forever hold a special place in my heart – but aside from that, I’m very much a traditionalist. (Trans-Siberian Orchestra remixes of carols totally count.)

This year, I’m grateful to be able to cleave to my traditions and preferences – in Mongolia, that often wasn’t the case. Mongolia as a whole has very interesting taste in Western music, which is to say that you hear an awful lot of the Beatles, Michael Jackson, and ABBA. They really like their ABBA. And since a lot of Mongolians don’t actually understand the English words in the songs they listen to, Christmas songs are regularly decontextualized. No one bats an eyelash at “All I Want For Christmas Is You” as a July ringtone.

Alas, the songs they do recognize as pertaining to this season – by which I mean they are played more regularly, but not exclusively, in December – are among my least favorite of all. I’d never heard ABBA’s “Happy New Year” before I lived in Mongolia, and I rather with it had stayed that way. And if I never hear “Last Christmas” again, it will be too soon.

What are your most- and least-favorite Christmas songs? Other languages count – I’d love to hear some traditional Christmas music from other cultures.