Woody Packard

Words + Pictures

Tsagaan Sar

Not Everyone Looks This Good in Silk
Tsend Ayuush's Father's Brother
This year Tsagaan Sar, or White Month, began on the 19th of February. It is the largest traditional family celebration of the year, a fact that we have been reminded of by the hectic pace of shopping over the weeks that lead up to it. Stores have been packed with customers, buying food, buying serving dishes of silver or gold, buying the many small presents that are given to hosts on arrival and to guests, as the universal signal that it is time to leave—to make room for the next scheduled visitors. Tents have been set up in Sukhbaatar Square, below our apartment near the State Department Store, and in other open spaces outside, where vendors are selling dairy products—white or nearly white milk, aruul, aarts, areg, tareg—along with large pieces of meat. (A whole sheep, skinned, and in this weather, frozen solid, sells for around 280,000 tugrigs, or $140 USD. Throughout the city, men are carrying them on their shoulders, sometimes wrapped in a wheat or potato bag, and sometimes without.)

They have also been buying traditional clothing—the classic Mongolian deel, in colors that sometimes hurt your eyes, along with boots that curl at the toe, hats of brightly colored felt or animal fur, trimmed with leather or silver. So I was surprised to learn from one of Judy's colleagues that during the Soviet period most of the traditional clothing disappeared. During that time, many people wore uniforms, and most uniforms were a color close to what we'd describe as olive drab. As with many things Mongolian that were once banned and are now coming back with vigor, you can now walk out the door and run into a whole family dressed in florescent green silk, wearing turquoise colored felt hats and bright orange belts.

Judy and Wood
Our Tsagaan Sar Best
Although we were warned to stock up on food, the biggest part of White Month lasts for three days. During those times, families converged on the home of the oldest family members to pay their respects and visit for a while before picking up and moving to another obligation—or getting home to host their own guests.

Together we visited two families of Judy's colleagues at M.U.S.T., both in apartments that were built in the past twenty-five years. One was the home of Tsend Ayuush, another teacher in Judy's department, whose father is a semi-retired physics professor. The other belongs to Judy's supervisor Dugarmaa's brother, a doctor who works at one of the big mines in the Gobi. At both houses we were treated royally, staying longer than we normally would because both families wanted us to get a good look at the whole ceremony. As guests arrived, the oldest family member (Tsend Ayuush's father, Dugarmaa's mother) would greet them with a special greeting, as well as a version of a hug that requires the younger person to place their forearms under the forearms of the older, in that way signifying their support for them. This part of the ritual is known by even the youngest of guests.

Much of the ceremony though seems to be known only by the oldest members of the family. In addition to the ul boov, the odd-number-of-layers stack of fried bread, on each table there is a stack of meat, mostly from a sheep, that is topped with the sheep's head, which may then be decorated with a pat of butter. Over and over we have heard of the importance of this stack of meat, and of the importance of its exact arrangement and stacking order. When we ask what that order is, or what it symbolizes, we are, with few exceptions, met with a stumped expression. Most of the people we asked, all relatively young, do not know the details, only that it is important and that it is traditional. Each has relied on the last members of the older generation within their family to take care of the details, and in both of these families, the oldest member has already been widowed. Beautiful as these traditions are, some of them are sitting on fragile ground.

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Tsagaan Sar

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Last Minute

Single Layer Ul Boov


Seven Layer Ul Boov

Stacked Meat

Family Elders

Youngest Generation


Father and Daughter

Counting Sheep


Judy and Dugarmaa

Five Layer Ul Boov


Bundled Visitors

Youngest Generation