This year Tsagaan Sar, literally White Month
, began on February 12—as always, the first day of a new moon. Comparable to our Christmas and New Year combined, it's a time at the end of the harshest part of winter where families and friends come together to pay respects and wish each other well. That really doesn't begin to explain it though.
The University is closed for the first two days, and students who live in the countryside didn't return to school until after they had celebrated with their families, missing the first week of class. The big market is closed for the first five days, and is barely in business for the next several days after that, so shopping is limited. Presents are given to all visitors, and brought to the household being visited. Along with the duty to serve all visitors is the duty to visit, and the duty to eat large helpings of food that has been prepared for each visit—either buuz or its smaller relative, the bansh. There is always some form of bol, large stacks of dried curd, or specially baked or fried bread (in exactly five or seven layers) and further heaped with white cubes of curd, sugar cubes, or other candy that is preferably white.
Although it is a traditional holiday, each family we visited had its own tradition or variation on a tradition, so that at each we felt like we were learning about it all over again.