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Culture Building Through Holidays

When I was a kid, I wanted to be an archaeologist. This desire had nothing to do with Indiana Jones. I wanted to dig up bones and potsherds before the first Indy movie came out. (Yes, I’m that old.) As I grew older, I discovered a deep love for myth, history, and culture, and I realized that it wasn’t so much the digging I wanted to do—it was the exploration of culture. Really, I’m more of an anthropologist deep down inside. It wasn’t until I started writing fantasy that I figured out how to mesh passion for writing with my passion for exploring other cultures.

As fantasy authors, we have an opportunity that’s completely unique in the writing world: we can make up absolutely anything we want. We get to be creators and anthropologists of our own worlds. And sure, creating magic and power is all very cool and fun, but I think we can really make our marks by creating cultures that resonate with readers and add depth to your worlds. One of the best ways to accomplish that is through world-specific holidays.

Think about the functions of holidays in our own world. Holidays:

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  • Mark the passage of time. Admit it: Every December 31, don’t you say something to the effect of “where did this year go?” Holidays are like mileposts in our lives.
  • Connect us with larger communities. Perhaps the holiday is widely celebrated, such as Christmas, or only locally recognized, such as my own hometown’s 100-year birthday celebration a while back. Holidays give us common ground with people we might not ever meet in person.

 

  • Center us on important events, tenets, or beliefs. Every culture, religion, and nationality has something important to remember or reaffirm. Holidays make us pause to remember those things we forget in our daily hustle and bustle.

Real world holidays give us some great foundations for creating believable holidays in our fantasy worlds. When you’re creating your world, think about some of the following.

  • Holidays can commemorate an event. Is it a rebellion? An important person’s death or birth? A day of peace or a somber day of remembrance? In the U.S., we have Independence Day to shoot fireworks, watch parades, wear flag shirts, and cook meat over open fires. That’s kind of tongue-in-cheek, but the point is, we all take a day to commemorate the signing of the Declaration of Independence. However, it’s a very different holiday from Patriot Day, a somber day of remembrance held on 9/11. No matter how we celebrate them (or if we do, or even if we think they’re silly, overrated, or unimportant), they connect us as a nation.
  • Holidays can celebrate natural cycles. Seasonal cycles, life and death, the movement of the stars—whatever the cycle, you can create a holiday to celebrate it and tie it to your world’s culture or belief system. Most cultures have a way to celebrate the start of the new year because that’s a cycle that resonates with people. Many cultures also have a celebration of life and death in some form. Building those kinds of cyclic holidays in will show that your world has a history and mythology of its own while still giving it resonance with the readers.
  • Holidays can communicate important religious ideas.Easter, Passover, Ramadan, Samhain—whatever your religion or belief system, chances are excellent that you have one or two vital holidays that center you on your core beliefs. Your world and characters should have those holidays, too. Do they fast on those days? Do they sing certain songs or read certain scriptures? Is there a feast to symbolize something important, or do they avoid certain foods for some reason? Can you tie those religious ideas to the mythology or history of the world?

Once you have the basic holidays designed, think about some of the little things that give subtext and authenticity to the days.

  • Numbers: Eight days of Hanukkah, five weeks of Advent, 2,977 flags for Patriot Day, three petals on an Easter lily—what numbers are significant to your holiday? How can you incorporate those numbers in the celebration?
  • Auxiliary Traditions: The tradition of mailing greeting cards is a fairly recent addition to the celebration of Christmas, and I’m reasonably certain that early Christians didn’t celebrate Easter with marshmallow Peeps. What are some of the auxiliary traditions that surround your holiday—things that might even cause conflict with religious leaders?
  • Co-opted Holidays: Nothing is ever static in any world, even the ones you create. Are there holidays that belong to long-dead civilizations or conquered people? Can your current culture adopt and adapt those holidays and add another layer of meaning? Think of Halloween and its origins in the Celtic Samhain. Perhaps your empire culture longs to make peace with the conquered, or perhaps it realizes that if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.
  • Symbols: Lights are a big one—candles, bonfires, fireworks, etc. Water is another big one. There are thousands of symbols in nature. Christmas trees, eggs, cornucopias can all be seen as symbols of life. Food can even be a symbol. The entire Jewish Seder feast is symbolic, right down to the salt.
  • Texts: What are the religious or cultural texts that are central to your culture’s holiday? Do your world’s religious leaders recite certain texts every time the holiday roles around? Does the nation’s king get up and read the equivalent of the Magna Carta once a year?

One last note: When I was researching this post, I found this podcast about holidays in fantasy. It’s very much worth a listen. Now, go forth and be the Indiana Jones of your fantasy world!

Next week, I’ll be discussing description in fantasy. See you then!

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8 Comments

  1. This article came at the right time for me as I am grappling with this in my manuscripts. I have to admit, there are times when people feel as though they are outsiders when they watch other people celebrate holidays they never knew existed or what they mean. This will give me a chance to at least contemplate what to do.

    Thanks for sharing this with us Amy!

    • Leif, I think that’s a great way to layer in context and build character, too. Sometimes, holidays look downright crazy to outsiders. What does that say about the culture AND the outsider?

      Glad you like the article!

  2. Thanks again for another wonderful post. 🙂 I’ve been enjoying these and keeping in mind. 🙂 Thank you.

  3. Avatar James Kelly says:

    I do enjoy your articles, Amy. I would also add the attitudes of people to a holiday or festival. For instance, Christmas is, for many people, more a tradition than a religious festival. Valentine’s Day celebrates live, but those who are single sometimes feel excluded and even resentful towards it! Not that I speak from experience or anything…

    • James, LOL re: Valentine’s Day. Yes, I absolutely agree, and I thought about saying some things about the different ways people celebrate/don’t celebrate, but I was running out of room! But as always, character makes a huge difference, and those holidays can not only layer culture, but they can also help you build character.

      Thanks for your comment!

  4. You’re speaking to the choir, Amy. It’s probably because of my Egyptology background that I, such a fan f culture in fantasy. Itsq the perfect combination of world building and character development. I love how the seemingly most insignificant nuance and gesture can have deep cultural meaning. One thing I’d always neglected, though, were holidays. Thanks for the advice.

    • Jamie, I think it’s so tempting in fantasy to just get absorbed in our magic systems or maps or whatever that we forget the cultural potential of our worlds. Glad I gave you something to think about! 🙂

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