Woody Packard

Words + Pictures

Buddhist Christmas

Christmas is for Buying
Since the middle of November, almost every time I have made an observation about Christmas, Judy has corrected me by saying New Year, in an effort to straighten out my thinking about what happens at this time of year in a country that is mostly Buddhist. It's a hard habit to break. A month and a half before Christmas New Year people start putting up Christmas New Year's trees and decorating them with Christmas New Year's ornaments. Stores and their accompanying advertisements have been hounding Christmas New Year's shoppers. Although Christmas New Year's sales started early, enticing many shoppers to get a jump on their Christmas New Year's shopping, invariably many wait until the last minute, just like in the United States. But by New Year's Eve, it is too late, and most stores and many restaurants settle into one or more days of well-deserved holiday.

Winter Father
It is easy to remember that you are living in a different culture when you see people wearing long, brightly colored clothing, or boots that curl up at the toe. It is not so easy when a familiar icon—conifer tree decorated with ribbon and lights, fat man in red velvet and white trim, (or more confusing, skinny man, Winter Father, in blue velvet and white trim)—is linked to a different tradition. Even for those who are not religious, Christmas is one of the biggest holidays of the year in the United States. In Mongolia, it is eclipsed by New Year, and in another month and a half, Tsagaan Sar. Here, the icons we associate with Christmas have come from Russia and more recently, from the heavy western influence of our Christian, and very capitalist, holiday.

Much more familiar are the last minute preparations for New Year's Eve, but with a Mongolian twist. The aisles in the grocery stores are over-supplied with shelves of champagne, but in shopping for a simple loaf of bread I discovered that bakeries at this time of year convert all of their energy into baking cakes—fancy, decorated, loaded with icing and sometimes fruit. Tables of cakes replace the shelves of bread, and the modest crowd in my usual bakery was replaced by a line that stretched out the door. Around the corner at Cherry Bakery it was the same thing, though I did find some bread there and squeezed my way to the back to pay for it, then out the door to safety.

I asked a Mongolian who spent ten years in the United States about Christmas in Mongolia, to see if my observations held water. "Do Mongolians celebrate Christmas?"

"Hmm. Not really," he answered. "My aunt does, but she has become a Christian."

"Do people exchange gifts for New Year's?"

"No, not very much."

"And all the advertising on billboards and in the stores?"

"It is, um, marketing. They are trying to get us to shop like Americans."

Absorbing all of this, I had one more question. "What about the cake?"

"The cake? It would not be New Year's without the cake!"

He told me that many people spend the evening at home, and that the party really starts at midnight. That may be true, but clearly many people do what we did, which was to bundle up (-28°C, -18°F) and head for Sukhbaatar Square to listen to music and watch the fireworks. Although we neglected to bring a bottle of champagne, many, many people did not forget theirs. And just like Americans, Mongolians love their fireworks.

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Buddhist Christmas

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Tree Assembly, Sky Department Store

Tree Assembly, Max Mall

Tree Assembly, Sukhbaatar Square

State Department Store

Judy, Zolo

New Year Santa, Coke Billboard

Electronic Santa

Book Tree, M.U.S.T

Hanging (New Years) Ornaments, State Department Store

New Years Lights

Official Tree

Ice Sculpture

New Years Eve, Sukhbaatar Square

Stage and Spotlights

Not So Different


Winter Father' s Pit Stop

Party's Over