So, you need to create a holiday! You’ve got a fantasy realm or a science fiction planet that needs cheer to be spread and decorations to be hung. Let’s build some traditions.
First, decide whether your plot completely revolves around your new holiday, you’re creating a portion of your novel in a holiday season or maybe it’s going on in the background. This is going to alter how in depth you need to go when creating your holiday. A full blown holiday novel is going to need every last detail sorted out. If it only makes an appearance, you won’t need more than a few traditions or decorations and a general idea of the lore. In the end, it’s up to you how detailed your new holiday will be.
First, let’s talk about…
- How Big
or Widespread is your holiday?
- Is it celebrated by thousands or even millions of
- How are the names of thing slightly different because of the languages spoken?
- Which traditions are similar in each location and what varies between them?
- Or is your holiday a dying breed only celebrated by a few people based off their personal history and culture of some remote village.
- Or maybe it seems like it’s a dying holiday, but the nomadic people travel in from all over for a grand holiday festival.
- How has the popularity of the holiday shifted?
- Did it use to be more or less popular?
- How important is it to observe the holiday? Which people consider it more or less so?
- Do they tolerate others not participating or is it looked down upon?
- Is it celebrated by thousands or even millions of people?
There are a couple ways to start designing a holiday. The first is to start at the beginning.
Method One: Start at the Beginning
- Rooted in
Pagan or Agrarian Tradition
- Where did the roots spring from? Were they originally appeasing the gods to bring back warm months?
- What did they do to appease them originally and how might that have been reinterpreted as time went on?
- Were they celebrating the longest day of the year in the summer or the spring’s birth and bounty like the Beltane?
- Who or what are the celebrating or commemorating? Why?
- Many festivities have decorations that include being brighter and louder (singing, fireworks, lights, costumes). The question is why? Originally were they scaring off unwanted spirits and it evolved into celebratory loudness or garb? Or were they trying to make the gods take notice?
- Consider the land around them, the geographical landmarks, maybe they celebrate the ocean or the mountains because those are things they see from their home. Perhaps there’s always a town march to the top of a mesa where the holy tree stands.
- Rooted in
History and Religion
- Most holidays are rooted in history and religion, then slowly developed as those cultures and religions changed and grew. In some cases when religions and cultures collide a new thing is born, like how the word Holidays is derived from Holy Days or how the birth of Mithras in Saturnalia was assigned to Christmas because the stories lined up as she was born on December 25.
- What happens in your story when one group invades another?
- Do holidays merge?
- Do people accept new holidays or practice their own in secret?
- Historically speaking, the rich adopt new traditions they think are charming and by doing so they set the standard, but the poor hold to their old ways. Eventually after generations, they merge and information is lost or evolves. Is this what happened in your world’s culture?
- Is the holiday religious or secular? Has this changed over time? How and why?
- How does religion influence how the holiday is celebrated?
- Which aspects of the religion are present during the holidays?
- Is your holiday based off a historical event?
- Historical events can lead to a holiday, like battles tend to spark days of remembrance or days of freedom. Even large sporting events can create a holiday where people gather to celebrate the event again.
- Leaders such as King and Queens usually have their own holidays, there could be a festival celebrating their rule or you can add an element of the monarchy into a different tradition. Like placing a painting or photo of them in a special place on the holiday – like watching the queen’s speech on Christmas.
If you’re writing SF or post-apocalyptic dystopian. You might have to go even further into the future.
- To The Future
- For science fiction, remember you’re playing with multiple planets here and many traditions and holidays will be different. Are they all tolerated? Have holidays from different planets begun to evolve together on space stations?
- What happens on a space station when there are hundreds of holidays?
- What about Post-Apocalyptic Holidays? Now we
have to go even further into the future to determine which traditions people
hold to and can perform in a dangerous or desolate new world.
- Do they arrange pine needles throughout their camp, or hang broken ornaments in their bunkers, or hold fast to an old toy that represents some symbolism in the holiday?
- What about Post-Apocalyptic Holidays? Now we have to go even further into the future to determine which traditions people hold to and can perform in a dangerous or desolate new world.
- When is
- Are your holidays associated with a particular calendar? Keeping in mind that even across earth different calendars exist.
- Is there a specific date that falls in line with your calendar? Or is it based off seasons (like the first snow fall) or astronomical events like comets or phases of the moon? Or maybe the transgression of the zodiac where every month they celebrate and decorate with a different animal they’re giving thanks to?
- When did they start observing this holiday? How long has it been going on?
- How long is the celebration? A day, week, month?
- And if it’s a longer holiday does it build up over time? Is there a most important day, and what is that?
To sum up creating a holiday from the beginning:
- Steps to
- Pick events of importance to early agrarian societies like spring’s bounty, autumn harvest, or winter solstice.
- Flesh out early traditions (physical offering, bonfires, music and dance, etc.) Pick symbols and details that cultures could latch on to for years to come.
- Then give birth to religion. Establish more than one religion in your world, pick a few major ones, consider geography, and write out myths or stories to go with them.
- Assign religious meanings to the celebrations based on your world’s history and geography.
- Give holidays a few hundred years to marinate and for all those traditions to merge and evolve
The other way to create a holiday is not to start in the past with history and developing ALL of everything, but to start with the particulars of the holiday itself.
Two: Start with the Particulars
- Start with a symbol or tradition. One thing you know you want, something interesting and build the history and other details from there.
- This is how I write. I start with one small thing and work my way backward filling in as much detail as I feel I need.
- For example, marking all the doors in the town
with an X.
- What are they warding off, what’s coming, how do they appease it, and what happens if they don’t? Then you can build the history from there. What happened to cause this, does it need to be stopped or fixed, and can it be?
- Or something nice: decorating trees with
jewelry. Only the finest golds and silvers, precious metals and gems.
- Why? Who are they appeasing historically? Is it a way of showing wealth or abundance? Does this create theft? What do people do if they can’t afford to decorate with jewels? Do they believe it’s good enough or must they try to figure out another way? How important is it to have some kind of jewel on that tree? Is someone coming that will judge them? Or is it purely to spread joy and sparkle in today’s world? Has it already evolved into fake gems or will it evolve in a hundred years to come?
Three: Start with Need and Want
- A lot of holidays are derived from need and want.
- Most creatures need things and when they don’t have those things they might turn to a bigger creature for help. Children turn to their parents and parents turn to their gods.
- What do your citizens most need and want, create
a god for that. Then find ways to appease that god – to make them happy.
- A sun god might want as much light and fire as possible (maybe they burn a great pyre once a year) which could evolve into fires in everyone’s homes all at once.
- Or maybe they’re a planet that has oxygen blow in and get trapped in the atmosphere – whatever science this is fiction – so maybe they pray to the oxygen gods. How would you appease an oxygen god?
- Is there a deer god that can bring bounty? Maybe everyone wears antlers and paints their faces?
- Other holidays are derived from fear and safety.
- Maybe they’re trying to ward off the evil spirits during the night that the veil is thinnest? How would they do that? What do the spirits or demons look like? What would scare them? Do they actually come? Does it become a night of silence in hopes of not being hunted? A night of masks and war paint? Of offerings of dark idols on the stoops of houses?
- Maybe once a year there’s a day of darkness. Or a day of games. Or a day of murder.
- Here’s something fun. Maye your main character is a great hero heading into a village that doesn’t normally celebrate his religion/holiday but wanted to celebrate his arrival so they tried to set it up for him but they got everything wrong.
- How could your holiday be misconstrued?
There is one big question you should ask yourself.
- Do you
want them to be inspired by anything in the current world and our current
- In some cases, it’s easy for readers to feel that holiday spirit if there are decorated trees and groups of carolers in the background. If you need your readers to get into the mood, and quick, you can paint in details pre-existing in our world and fill in the rest of the holiday with your own world’s quirks.
- I’m going to hit a point here real quick. Consider marketability. If you’re writing this to share with readers and be published, marketing might be important to you. The holidays in your novel aren’t just meant for you the author and your characters. You have to think about the audience reading it. It doesn’t hurt to bring in holidays that parallel common traditions like Christmas and Halloween to help readers become invested in this aspect of your book. There is no shame in this.
- You can make something completely unique (which is amazing!), but know your work is going to be harder to make people care about the emotions and feelings your new holiday is displaying.
Now that we have a basic idea on how to get started and fill out a solid foundation of a holiday, let’s get into a few quick details.
happens during the celebration?
- Is it celebratory or solemn?
- Religious or secular?
- Is it a holiday where otherwise improper behavior is tolerated or expected (like drinking on St Pattys day, pranking on April Fools, or mischief on the night before Halloween)
- What rituals and traditions take place?
- Are there plays or performances of some sort?
- Are there sacrifices? What are they sacrificing to and why? Has the concept of sacrifice evolved? Is the sacrifice symbolic now into leaving an idol out or has the sacrifice become a personal decision like Lent?
- What food is traditionally served?
- Are there feasts? Or special meals? Are they special dinners or breakfasts or lunches?
- Take into consideration what food is widely available and what might be considered a special treat.
- What about beverages? Is there alcohol served? Hot drinks or cold drinks?
- How and why did these foods and drinks become associated with the holiday?
- Anything out of the norm is usually stressful for humans, we’re generally happy in repetition. It’s why we always tend to sit in the same desk in a classroom. But maybe your culture is chaotic, maybe the holiday is them settling for a week or month. Either way, what might cause stress, worry, or anxiety during the holiday? On lots of occasion it’s purely about joy and goodwill, but a true holiday is stressful. Making it special for your family, affording gifts, food, or décor, and not being with family or friends can all make it stressful – among so many more things.
- How do people decorate?
- Is there something unusual that many people do (like putting a tree in your house)?
- How do the decorations symbolize the holiday, its history, or religion?
- Are there special colors or symbols used?
- Is there traditional clothing worn?
- Is this based in culture, religion, humor, horror or fear?
- What do people avoid doing?
- What is considered bad luck?
- What about good luck?
- Are gifts exchanged?
- Is it an explosion? Single gifts? Specific types of gifts?
- How are the gifts presented? Wrapped? Hand-made?
- Are they material possessions, or are they verbal, acted out, or written to each other.
- Are there traditional games played?
- People who don’t partake?
- Games that others watch?
- Games that are mimicked by children in the streets?
- Games for only specific age groups?
- What sort of music is played?
- Are there special songs?
- Who sings them and where?
- Because this is an age old question for humans, it’s likely a theme in your novel. Holidays are a great time to think about how your characters are celebrating the spirits from the afterlife.
- Do they welcome them in?
- Or do they keep evil spirits away somehow?
- Are there any holy spirits or special widely known holiday spirits?
- How does the holiday look from the rich versus the poor?
- Are there traditions both do, but in different ways to their own means?
- If you have more than one race or species celebrating the same holiday, do they do so in the same way?
- Or do the centaurs and fauns celebrate differently?
- What might the differences be and are they somehow related to the physiology of the creatures, their history, or their cultures?
- If people from various cultures celebrate the same holiday, what are the similarities or differences?
- Consider geography – is it hot or cold there, is the food served different?
- How do they create the feeling of the holiday when certain elements aren’t there? If there’s no snow to build a snowman or spicy foods to eat in the mountains?
- What do they do instead?