June 1st, was Children’s Day in Mongolia. Children’s Day emerged in 1925, right around the time that child labor was formally frowned upon in the Western world, after children decades earlier suffered as cogs in the wheels of the Industrial Revolution. In the 50s the United Nations jumped on it, and made it an international day to cherish rugrats. Many Asian cultures celebrate their own Children’s Day as well – almost always in the spring. Each nation has its own take on how to celebrate, but across the globe, it’s a pretty good day for smiles.
Many of Mongolia’s national holidays still have ties to its Soviet Era. Children’s Day is one of my favorite “quintessentially Mongolian” holidays: it fits in with the country’s socialist past, it jives with the way Mongolians revere children, and it has adapted quite quickly into a lucrative holiday for retail. A little bit of history, a little bit of tradition, and a little bit of what lies ahead – a compelling jumble commonly found here.
You should prepare by getting stocked up on gifts for the little ones in your life. Gifts can be modest or exorbitant: a bar of chocolate, a goodie bag with assorted junk food, or a bicycle. We prefer the generic goodie bag . With 7 close in-laws with kids (some with several), we have to be fair, but also economical. Plus we’ve got our own now. Granted, she’s happy chewing on a couch cushion, but still…
After lunch with an American journalist (in town to research a water diversion project that will have a huge impact on the region), we went to check out the action at the big theatre in Darkhan, our local cultural center with a massive plaza. We had seen a modestly sized circus tent going up the day before, and the whole city was abuzz for Children’s Day. Little girls were wearing their pouf-iest princess dresses, kids were running more amok than usual, drivers had their headlights on in the daytime (a celebratory thing), and the Children’s Park was swarming with people. Milling about with the girls in tons of tulle, were emees (grandmothers) in jewel colored deels (traditional clothing).
Children’s Day is still conventionally observed as Mother and Children’s Day. Last year, we spent the day in a crowded auditorium in Nomgon soum (town). Families from the countryside were gathered to celebrate by honoring esteemed grandmothers in the soum and its surrounding region occupied by nomadic herders. Our Emee was one of the notable honorees, as mother to 9 children and grandmother to a small army of her descendants. Normal mothers, not the ones who get medals and plaques for expanding a soum’s gene pool, don’t get a ton of fanfare. Mothers are congratulated on Children’s Day, and treated to a little extra attention, but not all the loot that their little ones get.
Children’s Day also reminds everyone that summer is just around the corner. Kids finish school either before, or within a week or two of Children’s Day. Graduation ceremonies have taken place and grass is green again. There’s no better time of the year to extol the vessels of hope for the future.
After getting our tickets for the 5:00 show of the Mongolian circus, we headed to Miga and Jagaa’s new apartment for a Children’s Day gathering of family. We distributed gifts to the little ones present, ate way too much food, made the babies play with other (then separated them when they’d start crying in stereo), and watched a broadcast of a kindergarten performance of traditional dancing. One of our own was one of the dancers, and as we watched, she recreated the choreography in the crowded living room.
We made it back to the theatre just in time to que up for a decent seat in the circus tent. The sky was threatening rain, and people were getting antsy in line. The Mongolians I know don’t like to wait in lines. I think it reminds them of the breadlines in the 90s when the country became an independent democracy. Since that time they’ve become fully accustomed to the Asian shove-your-way-to-the-front technique, and as people started to flow forward and disappear into the plastic flaps tent’s entrance, we drifted our way there, eased back two steps for every one step forward, by the passive-aggressive surge of bodies.
Despite the crush of people going in, there were plenty of good spots in the acrylic chairs bolted to the iron bleachers. They pitched forward a bit, but that came in handy once the show opened with a dramatic aerial act. Young performers, presumably the children of Children’s Day not that many moons ago, kept the drama going throughout the show, with more aerial performances, acrobatics, group juggles, contortion, and comedy bits. There was only one act that had safety rigging – the trapeze girls – and everyone performed on top of concrete covered by an un-padded, thin, red rug.
Terra slept through the first half of the circus, which was the most astounding feat happening under that tent. Each act had their own booming soundtrack, a royalty-free mix of Danny Elfman, Cirque du Soleil tracks, Mongolian songs, and Euro-Techno beats. I think the sound guy had one reliable dial for adjusting volume, and he seemed to relish experimenting with it.
Despite the technical difficulties, the show was really impressive. The young performers were high energy, and professional in the ring. A group of tumblers in Wild West Indian costumes dropped a stack of people piled three-high, but they came down in the most graceful looking heap. They exchanged quick looks of despair, got steely-eyed and did the routine again. They nearly nailed it the second time around.
The circus closed with the entire troupe performing a dance for ecology. A foam tree stump was rolled out, and each performer danced with a branch from the fallen tree. They sang lyrics reminding the audience that life here depends on the health of the land, and that robbing it of trees hurts us all.
We distributed the last of our gifts on-hand before heading home after the circus. We still have some family to visit tomorrow, and we still have to settle up with the two kids we’re in charge of. Tomorrow will have considerably less fanfare than today, but hopefully still have holiday sale prices.
Children’s Day can bleed a family’s monthly budget dry, but it doesn’t have to. For most, it’s just a day to enjoy one another, and to relish in the ease children have with making the most of what you have and the people you have around you.