So, you’ve read my previous post about including a holiday in a novel, or are just looking for some general tips and guidance. Holidays can be a great way to add a subplot or aid your novel, but can be tricky, especially when your genre is fantasy, science fiction, dystopia, or an alternate world that doesn’t quite share the same history and traditions as our own.
Before I get too far, first a couple disclaimers. There is no right way to create a holiday, and these are nothing more than just tips. You by no means have to add a holiday to your novel, and unless it’s integral to your plot, shouldn’t rely too heavily on holidays either. The majority of the holidays I use as examples are American because that’s what I have the most experience with, but they are by no means the only holidays and festivals people around the world celebrate.
Change the Name
My first tip, is the most basic and widely used tip in fiction—literature, television shows, movies, or games— I see it all the time. Instead of Valentine’s Day, it’s Lover’s Day and still has all the association and aspects of the day itself. Instead of Christmas, it’s Yule, Mid-Winter, etc… Different name, but similar origins and traditions.
Changing the name is perhaps the easiest thing to do, and there’s nothing wrong with it. Readers like familiarity. Sure your story may take place in a land far, far away with a different type of government, creatures, and history, but chances are there are similar aspects to our own. Gravity acts more or less the same, the day/night/week/year cycle is the same, and foreign cultures and values may be similar to our own as well. The likes of Star Wars, Doctor Who, and other fantasy/sci-fi lands do this all the time. Reading a novel or watching a show where everything is different can be intense, and not for the average casual audience member. By keeping some things similar, it’s easier for the audience to pay attention to the story and relate to the characters, and you don’t have to spend too much time detailing the holiday and traditions associated with it because the audience already is informed.
But, there may be instances where you need a new holiday or event specific to your plot that doesn’t have a counterpart in our world, or maybe just want to have something different. If that’s the case, there are some questions you should take into consideration when developing your own holiday.
How Much of a Role Does the Holiday Play in Your Plot?
This is the first question you should be asking because it will determine how much work you put into constructing the holiday. If the answer is not much, the holiday is just there in the background, then you can get away with the basics. If the answer is a great deal with a significant amount of your plot revolving around it, then you’ll have to spend quite a bit time and energy into creating it.
Of course, the answer could be not much, but you love world-building so much or have a great idea that you can’t pass up on the opportunity to go into as much detail as possible. That’s fine, but if that’s the case, you should then ask yourself, is it worth it? Could my time be better spent elsewhere in the world? Should I really be typing 10,000 words on a holiday that will only show up for a few hundred, at the most, in the novel? Or even maybe, include it in the first place?
The amount you put into your holiday is ultimately up to you, but just keep in mind the level of effort you should really be putting in vs. what you want to put in.
What does the Society Value?
This is the next question you should ask, because the answer could shape the reason for your holiday. A lot of our so-called modern holidays can be traced back to similar origins, mainly revolving around the changing of the seasons and astrological occurrences.
It’s not a coincidence that Stonehenge, and other prehistoric sites around the world have special significance for certain events such as the winter or summer solstices. These monuments marked the changing of the seasons, which were important to know for one reason— food. Knowing when to plant, when to harvest, the start of the rainy season, how long it would last, was crucial to survival. There was no store to go to, no government bail-out if the crops did poorly. There was also no Google Calendar for them to keep track of the days and seasons by, so they made their own.
Besides food and health, other values for society include religion, the government/military, societal values. Many holidays have a religious connection (Christmas, Easter, Passover, Ramadan), some of which comes back to giving thanks for the food/seasons. Others have a military/government angle (Fourth of July, Veteran’s Day, Memorial Day). If your society values their military or government leaders, a holiday could be to celebrate/honor/remember them or an important historic event.
Then there are societal values which could be unique to your world. Think of festivals or holidays that are held locally in your area, but not nationally (Sweet Corn Festival, Bacon Days). Or if your society strongly values family, you could have holidays revolving around family (Mother’s Day, Father’s Day).
Also, holidays don’t have to be happy, joyous occasions. They can be solemn days of remembrance (Pearl Harbor Day, Patriot’s Day). A somber event could be the perfect way to set the mood for a darker-toned story (think the reaping in Hunger Games), or a great way to have a contrast against an otherwise light story.
Who Celebrates it?
Not everybody celebrates the same holiday, or even the same way. Holidays and festivals can vary by region. The Fourth of July may be big in America, but for the rest of the world, it’s just another day of the year. Your hometown might have a Bacon Day Festival every year, but it’s not celebrated elsewhere.
Holidays can also vary by religion. Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, all have unique holidays and festival. Some might overlap at the same time of the year or origin, but they’re still observed differently. Then there are those who might be surrounded by a religion different than their own, or are atheists and don’t participate in religious holidays period.
They can also vary by social class. Depending on wealth, the elite of your society might celebrate an event, where as the lower class might either dread it or skip it (Think how District 12 reacts to the Hunger Games vs. the Capital. Also this should be the last Hunger Games reference). The same could work vice versa. The lower class might celebrate an event while the elite think it’s too crass, or beneath them.
Humans are a diverse group, and should be represented as such in your story.
Where/when is it Celebrated?
We tend to think of holidays of annual events, but that’s not always the case. Inauguration Day in America is once only four years. Some events, such as those revolving around the changing of the seasons could be held multiple times a year as the season change.
Practices can also vary by time of day. Muslims observing Ramadan spend a month fasting from dawn to dusk, while having post-sundown feasts. While your holiday doesn’t have to follow the same practice as Ramadan, varying how your holiday is observed based on the time of day— and explaining why— could be an interesting read for your audience.
Where your novel takes place matters as well. If you story takes place in a desert, it might be hard for your characters to get their hands on an evergreen if they’re observing a Christmas inspired holiday. If your story takes place on an island or near the ocean, then your characters might celebrate with some special fish dish rather than a plump turkey or glazed ham.
How is it Celebrated?
Once you get the when/where/why/who down, it’s time to figure out the how. How can vary depending on who’s celebrating the event (children vs. adults, poor vs. wealthy, believers vs. non), where the holiday is (desert vs. mountain, nationally observed vs. small town), and when it is (spring vs. winter, modern times vs. ancient).
Things to keep in mind include:
- Take a minute and think about every holiday you’ve ever been a part of, and chances are, food was involved. Whether it was candy and sweets, classic dishes such as turkey and pumpkin for Thanksgiving, or the one dish your mother made without fail, food was most likely involved as part of the holiday, and your fictional holiday should as well. Now, it could be a food common to the time of year (pumpkin and squash in the fall), or something rare that’s only brought out once a year (be it a food, or the good china set to serve it on). Don’t forget about drinks, be it apple cider or hot chocolate in the fall and winter, or a nice frothy pint for St. Patrick’s Day. Food has been a huge part of holidays and festivals for centuries, so why should yours be any different?
- It’s not uncommon to have clothing unique to a holiday. Whether it’d be a family’s best and cleanest clothes, or a specific outfit. For Saint Lucy’s Day, girls traditionally wear white dresses with red sashes and a crown of candles on their head, which has special meaning for the day. While you don’t have to be that elaborate, think about what your characters would wear to celebrate. Remember where your story takes place and when the holiday occurs for influences from temperature, climate, what materials your characters might have access to. Social and economic background could effect their dress as well (a dress in the finest material in the latest fashion for a wealthy woman, vs. a second-hand dress for a woman not as well-off).
- Whether it’s skulls for Día de Muertos, mistletoe and evergreens for Christmas, or hearts for Valentine’s Day, decorations can play a huge role in celebrating your holiday. They can be large, like a Christmas tree, or small like a simple string of garland. Flowers and other natural materials are a good start, as are other materials your society easily has access to based on where they live or social class. Or they might save the rare flower or item for a special day that occurs only once a year.
- Valentine’s Day has pink and red, Halloween has orange and black, Fourth of July has red, white, and blue. Colors can show up in clothing, decorations, and food, as discussed previously. They might reflect the time of the year—Halloween/Thanksgiving has colors reflecting the changing leaves while Easter has brighter colors associated with blooming flowers. Or they might reflect colors important to your country, if the holiday has a government or military significance (think red, white, and blue for the Fourth of July).
- Oral Traditions
- Depending on the holiday, and where one lives, different types of greetings can be used (Merry Christmas vs. Happy Christmas). What do people in you society say to one another on the holiday? In addition, what type of stories or legends are told for your holiday? Are they origin stories such as the birth of Jesus for Christmas, or tales associated with the time of year such as A Christmas Carol for Christmas, or ghost/horror stories for Halloween. While they can be written down, typically such tales are best if they’re shared aloud, be it in a religious setting explaining the origins, or among family and friends for entertainment or setting the mood.
- Gifts (if applicable)
- Gift-giving is a common aspect of holidays, but not required. If you do include it as part of your holiday, you should consider who receives gifts and who gives them? Are they given just to children or maybe to parents (Mother’s/Father’s Day). Are they exchanged between lovers (Valentine’s Day) or between office workers (Boss Appreciation Day). What is typically given? Do gifts vary by location, cost, size? Are gifts required, or simply an appreciated gesture? How are they presented (wrapped vs. plain, all at once vs. one at a time)? What happens if a person receives a gift but has none to give in return? Is there a charitable aspect of your holiday where those who are well-off give to those in need? How does that work? These are just some of the questions you might consider when incorporating gift-giving into your holiday.
- What would Christmas be without carols, or the Fourth of July without a band playing patriotic music? Holiday music can be loud and celebratory, or soft and gentle, or even somber. And what would music be without dancing to go with it? Be it a slow dance between lovers, or a group dance to an upbeat tune, music and dancing go hand and hand, and are a great way to celebrate a holiday. Nearly anything can be made into some sort of an instrument, and the same goes for dancing. It doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor, old or young, live in a desert or on a mountain, both are readily available.
That’s it for this month. As previously stated this is by no means the ultimate guide on how to craft your own holiday, but hopefully it’s enough to get those creative juices flowing.
If this was helpful, you have a few suggestions of your own, or just some different topics you want to see me cover, leave me a comment.
—Kay S. Beckett