Vision: A Resource for Writers
Holly Lisle's Vision
Creating Fictional Holidays
By Robert A. Sloan
2001, By Robert A. Sloan
The easiest and simplest way to
create fictional holidays for fantasy and SF worldbuilding is to draw them from
real holidays and integrate them with your fictional worldís cultures.
A light treatment is to just change
the name, keep the date comparable in your world's calendar, and then base your
holidays on the root traditions you've created. Many fantasy writers use the
eight European pagan holidays and may rename them to local pantheons. They are
described in depth in almost all pagan and New Age sites and books. That's solid
ground, because those are seasonal holidays whose meanings reflect daily life in
a medieval agrarian world. They are so sound that most of them still show up in
the Christian calendar, with a saint attached and slightly different
If you follow the example of the
unknown clerics who Christianized the pagan calendar, you'll find that they kept
the meanings and added new religious interpretations to blend the new and old
cultures. Modern pagans are reversing the process with historical research and
discovering ancient traditions kept intact by those Christians. The archetypes
and stories remain the same. Root stories give depth to your fictional holidays,
and you can just change the trimmings. Your details will come from the
historical events of your fictional world, its religions and any magical
qualities you've already invented.
For instance, the root story of a
midwinter birth may change, if your world has a sun goddess, to a Madonna figure
holding her daughter. If youíre at a loss for what to call the holiday, the
name of the sacred infant can be worked into what itís called. Christmas
breaks down to Christís Mass, meaning that itís the mass celebrating that
birth. Midwinter is a good useful default, but if your sun-child has a name and
a legend, a local word for the celebration or rite, fused with the god's name,
creates a unique title for the holiday.
The same process can be applied in
science fiction, and can include a good many secular holidays. July 4 (the
United States' Independence Day) or any Ďfoundingí holiday youíre familiar
with can translate rapidly to Landing Day on a colony world. Historical events,
such as contact with natives, will emerge as something apocryphal, much like the
American holiday Thanksgiving.
Studying the history celebrated by
the American Thanksgiving, you'll find that it actually progressed from
propaganda to folktale and could be considered slanted, synopsized history. In
the traditional folktale version the celebration began as a minor incident when
some local natives held a feast and gave gifts to the new European colonists.
The bloodier history, that many of the colonial groups aggressively attacked
various native tribes, is usually glossed over in favor of a generic friendly
native group greeting generic Puritans. Archaic costume that was common only to
one group of colonists, the Puritans, became ceremonial costume for modern
Thanksgiving cards, pageants and table decorations. The modern interpretation
the holiday went from thanking God for food to a day set aside to thank the
people you know for what theyíve done for you. The culture changed, and even
though people think of the holiday as part of history, it represents an
idealized, very vague history.
Don't discount propaganda and
advertising as a source of holidays! Somewhere in your SF world's history are
plenty of secular holidays made up by someone for the purpose of selling
products or ideas. Mother's Day, Father's Day, Valentine's Day and many others
were created by greeting card companies. Later they might become social customs
with enormous emotional importance. Ask your fictional people what's important
You may have to look outside
Western culture for your template holidays, particularly in a world with a
variety of climates and cultures. Please do. Nothing lifts a reader out of his
or her chair so well as a relatively unfamiliar foreign holiday given a good
localizing treatment when set on another world. India feels like another world
to many travelers. Indonesia is another universe. Africa is another reality
entirely. Readers may or may not recognize your root reference, but a bit of
research can explode with colorful details, including all the trimmings.
Especially all the trimmings on the
Food customs are where your
originality spices this recipe for holidays. Those who enjoy spicy food can
taste the difference between Thai hot cuisine, Texas Five Alarm Chili and a hot
curry. Food itself is one of the most important memorable, elements of nearly
any holiday. Your world has its own cookbook. Smell, taste, color and special
preparation all create something unique in a holiday dish, adding plausibility.
It also adds a level of total
immersion if you actually experiment and create some of these fictional-world
holiday foods in your own kitchen. The recipe book for them is something fans
will genuinely appreciate, just the way fans enjoy finding musical scores for
the bardic ballads in a favorite fantasy series. Some fantasy writers are almost
multimedia artists when including scores and other worldbuilding material. You
can also use your kitchen experiments to immerse yourself during the writing and
create a sense of veracity.
Food experiments apply to fasts as
often as to feasts. Fasting can be found in many diverse religions. From the
Islamic holiday Ramadan, where the devout donít eat until the sun goes down
for an entire month, to the Catholic Lent, a fast that lasts more than a day or
so will have enough food per day for the devout to survive. It can be as
specific as eliminating certain foods. Passover food eliminates leavened bread
for religious reasons, and results in tasty treats like matzoh bread and matzoh
ball soup that many non-Jewish people enjoy when the season comes around.
Psychologically, fasts draw peopleís attention to the feasts that come before
or after them. All the wild partying of Carnival, Mardi Gras, and Fat Tuesday in
many Catholic countries is the last big blowout before they settle down to Lent.
Through most of Catholic history, every Friday was a fast day and meat
couldnít be eaten. The rules have loosened in modern times, but thereís
still a token (self-declared) fast of some kind for the Lent month that most
will keep in some way or another.
Other special limits or customs may
apply in religious holidays. Daily rituals are common. Special clothing may be
worn, and people may bare or cover their heads. Some activities like dancing,
singing or praying may be required or forbidden. The common thread in all these
practices is that the daily rhythms of life are changed to draw attention to the
religionís principles. For a fictional world, this is a chance for you, the
author, to decide what principles your fictional religion expresses and
highlight them with customs that make the reader recognize how much your
characters believe their religionís core values.
Silences, vows of silence, limits
on speech or singing can be ways to express solemn themes. Holidays for the dead
may be loud and wild or quiet and mournful. Themes of remembrance may have
specific forms and meters of speech and song. Clothing may be muted, dull and
plain compared to day-to-day dress. The meaning of the holiday will be expressed
in every custom surrounding it.
Any personal idea or rant the
author has can be expressed in fictional holidays. If your futuristic culture
has the background of twentieth century thought, people may consider self-esteem
important. A holiday could be set aside for taking care of the self, combined
with extreme respect for the boundaries of others -- something of an
individuality day in which people wore what they felt like, deliberately ate
their favorite foods, complimented each other on how creatively they interpreted
it. That would say something about the colony world that created that holiday.
It would probably be a day off from work, but it might also be a day to swap
jobs with someone else in order to do something thatís normally only a hobby.
The characters who grew up in that world might take that holiday for granted if
its meaning would become clichť to them. This makes holidays a way for the
author to express the theme of the book without a lot of story-dragging
explication. It wonít be preachy if your characters all have different
reactions to it within the range of their culture. Itís showing, not telling.
Music is important to most
holidays. Many holidays have traditional songs; sometimes also pageants, plays,
and reenactments of the holiday's beginnings. Most of all there will be a lot of
amateur performance of easy traditional material. Creating the original material
is harder than playing Jingle Bells on a piano. Luckily it gets easier in SF.
In SF, if your characters have
roots on Earth, they are playing
Jingle Bells. Of course, they're
doing it their way. Perhaps they're
doing it on a holographic piano, virtually rendered within an unbelievably
inaccurate, romanticized, and sentimentalized Dickensian drawing room. Perhaps
they've turned the old black and white movie It's
A Wonderful Life into an antique media event similar to modern stagings of A
Christmas Carol. Take the trends of real holidays that you know, and then
ask yourself what a few hundred or thousand more years' deletions or additions
might have done to them. Santa Claus might be traditionally black and ring a
bell, but he will still be there somewhere. Even today, in warm climates, Santa
shows up in red shorts instead of a heavy winter coat, but his reindeer still
fly South with him and go surfing, too.
Fireworks are plausible for any
culture with gunpowder. They are often either harmless reenactments of
firefights, or they're used to frighten demons. If there are no fireworks there
might be noise. Plenty of it. Holidays are a time when people let down their
hair and do silly things and make a lot of noise, if it is not a holiday given
over to silence. Drums are common and so is anything rhythmic or loud. The
volume helps disguise the amusing harmonics of untrained voices enthusiastically
belting out traditional songs off key. That's what makes it fun. That's also the
human detail that works, like the way the film Star Wars dirtied up the pristine
starships to create plausibility.
Real people who only sing that
loudly on holidays, tone deaf or not, are loved by their loved ones. Holidays
make those mistakes sentimental. Children's mistakes will be sentimentalized
above everything else, even if the child's mortified.
That leads to another aspect of
holidays. Anything that familiar will also be the butt of jokes. Holiday humor
may even consist of jokes hundreds of years old, repeated annually to the same
belly laugh. If those traditional holiday songs are easy, the average wit can
come up with a parody version. Jokes and parodies start to reveal what your
culture thinks is important. The jokes that arenít told may reveal what that
culture thinks is too sacred for humor. When I look at the Christmas customs,
Santa jokes are a mainstay for cards, sketches, parody songs and anything else
people can think of. Yet a comedian making jokes about the Madonna or virgin
births will offend, not amuse, most audiences.
Showing all the tensions that
emerge between characters during the stress of holiday preparations is a good
backdrop, and one of the things fictional holidays are useful for. Family and
other relationships are stressed, and if there is any tension, it may erupt into
personal conflict. Everyone's spare time is devoted to group activities: making
costumes and decorations, preparing speeches and songs, and other creative
endeavors. The extra effort behind the jollity brings out the darker side of
holidays. If the world or personal situation is bleak, and the characters face
hardships, tempers will flare. However,
sometimes holiday spirit will prevail. Group activity and shared meaning can
draw characters together in sentimental recognition of all loved ones and even
distant kinships. How many people only hear from cousins at holidays?
Aliens have different kinships, and
in their holidays those kinships will display themselves. Their biology
will affect what they celebrate. Spawning Day will still come at the biological
season of their animal ancestors for a broadcast breeding species. Sentients
will elaborate the ancestral animal's nest building and mate attracting
behaviors into song, costume, dance, artistic works and religious symbolism.
Their biology will affect the aliens and their values. For aliens, I'd recommend
writing from life and looking far outside the human species for interesting
Drawing holidays from animal
behavior works in fantasy, too. How many fables, talking animals, animal totems
and anthropomorphic animals occur in high fantasy? If your cat were sentient,
what holidays would she celebrate? Would her seasonal heat become a great
fertility festival where males perform, dance, sing, decorate themselves and try
to get her attention? Would all that become ritualized for cat people?
Also the animals your fictional
people keep will affect its culture and holidays. Most of the Christmas legends
about shepherds grew out of a Middle Eastern shepherd culture. Horse peoples may
well have holidays that reflect the habits, behavior and care of horses even if
there are no sentient horses in the world. In many hunting cultures, the animals
arenít domesticated and ceremonial hunts may be important. Some scarce game
may only be eaten on holidays. Reading anthropology articles and books may give
a good overview of whatís important to a specific way of life. The ceremonies
will come through vividly and feel right even to readers who havenít read four
different books by Margaret Mead.
Holidays are often shared across
borders and may create temporary truces. Profoundly meaningful events, like an
annual ceasefire, may occur on the most important holidays. I created one of
those for a short story once, a divine wedding between the god of one nation and
the goddess of another that usually warred. Its specific customs wound up
creating major plot turns in four different fantasy novels set in that world,
and casual references gave depth to other books in the series. Just because you
created a truce doesnít mean that you canít let characters break it! Your
commanders might brutally take advantage of a holiday that isn't shared by their
soldiers. Differences in holiday customs can even be turned into causes for war.
If one side is more ascetic, and the other does something on holidays that
breaks a major taboo, that may be the cause of a popular war.
Finally, look within your fictional
cultures at their day-to-day lives and ask what's important to them. Some
holidays can come up whole cloth out of your world's history and cultural
diversity. If it was important in their view of history, it's important enough
to have a day set aside for it, with reenactments, good food and traditional
music, dance, and acting. You might
include crowd activities embellished by special costumes and decorations that,
though simple, are deeply meaningful. A good final filter for holiday songs,
dances and activities is to get some real children to play with the stuff, sing
the songs and dance the dances. Kids like playing anyway, and if they can manage
the material, it's likely to be a winner.
Happy holidays! Keep in touch and
I'll drop in for the grub!