The holidays are upon us, and this year I will once again be forced by my wife and children to celebrate them. Believe me, I’d rather not, but that’s another thing entirely.
This year’s holiday season sees me busily preparing for a class I’m teaching on the subject of worldbuilding—a subject near and dear to my heart, and what I believe to be the very soul of the SF and fantasy genres. Mystery and romance authors need to pick a time and place in which to set their stories, and do research accordingly, but SF and fantasy authors usually need to invent a time and place, and that’s not as easy as it sounds . . . and it doesn’t sound easy.
It’s certainly a subject that requires more than one blog post, or as the people who attended my seminar at Write on the Sound in October found out, more than an hour and a half or so. Hence the eight-week class.
This week let’s take a quick look at one component to a richly realized SF or fantasy world: holidays.
The title of this post is inspired by my old stomping grounds, the Forgotten Realms world. Ed Greenwood’s Calendar of Harptos is a simple 365-day year made up of twelve months each with an even thirty days. But 365 isn’t evenly divisible by thirty, so you end up with five extra days, and these are special days—holidays—that sit outside, or between, months. There’s a winter holiday that comes between Uktar (FR’s November) and Nightal (December) called The Feast of the Moon. It’s described in the Forgotten Realms Player’s Guide:
The Feast of the Moon: This holiday celebrates ancestors and the honored dead. During the festival, ancestral tales are recounted, and the stories and myths that bind cultures are taught anew.
That’s a pretty simple, two-sentence statement, and as you’re building your own world (or universe) think about holidays in that sort of simple statement. In our real world we have holidays like Christmas, which could be described in two sentences like this:
Christmas: Celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ, founder of the Christian religion, Christmas is one of that faith’s most holy days. It is celebrated by an exchange of gifts, and marked by celebrations and feasts with family and friends.
I think that more or less covers it.
But obviously there’s more to Christmas than just that. I didn’t get into specifics like Christmas trees, mistletoe, stockings, Santa, Black Friday, and so on. And if I were creating a holiday celebrated in my fantasy world, I would want to go on to add more detail as necessary.
And those last two words, as necessary, are very important, and not just on the subject of holidays but for any component of your worldbuilding efforts. Does this holiday move your story forward? Holidays can be extremely useful and effective tools for storytelling. They can provide deadlines: We have to stop the High Priest of Grogak before the Solstice Festival or he’ll summon the demon prince Frazzmiz and usher in a century of darkness.
Holidays can provide a respite: The barbarians won’t storm the village on Grimnacht, so we have twenty-four hours to prepare our defenses.
Holidays can provide emotional context: This was the first Gifting Day since the death of their daughter and Galen and Bronwyn couldn’t stand the sight of the celebratory garlands draped around the city.
In my book How to Start Your Own Religion I had an awful lot of fun with holidays. Religions tend to inspire most of them. The root of the word holiday is “holy day,” after all. That book was meant to be silly, but in the chapter on holy days I did a little research and found a different religious holiday for each month. I was amazed by both the variety of holidays and the common threads. Some celebration or at least marking of a new year is popular. The Earth travels around the sun in a circular orbit taking roughly 365.25 days. Where along that course is the beginning of a year? It’s a circle. There is no beginning. That means you have to just pick a day and run with that. The calendar we use now has been around for a long time but was developed bit by bit, tweaked and altered and reconfigured, over and over again, until we’ve got it pretty much where we want it, or anyway where everyone seems to understand it and has agreed, one way or another, to abide by it. Why does 2013 begin on January 1st? because the calendar says so. There really is nothing magical—or astronomical—about that date. You just have to pick one.
In How to Start Your Own Religion, I noted Nouruz, the Zoroastrian New Year’s Day, which happens on March 21. Were the Zoroastrian’s wrong? No, they were just different. In that passage in the book I commented that I thought having the year start in the spring was a good idea. Spring feels like a time of beginnings, or at least of renewal—much more so than the dead of winter, anyway.
So if you’re Creating the World from scratch, when does your year begin? For simplicity’s sake, the Forgotten Realms calendar more or less mimics the real world calendar, with the year starting the first day of Hammer, which is the equivalent of January. And there’s much to be said for simplicity’s sake.
But when you are creating a world from the ground up, you get to make those decisions, but as with all things worldbuilding, make those decisions based on story.
Does your story have something to say about rebirth and renewal? Then setting it around the Spring Festival, or the New Year Feast, which happens on the spring equinox, helps you give your characters a more robust world to inhabit. They’re part of something, like we’re part of Christmas here in America (the only religious holiday that’s also a national holiday).
And just like real Americans have differing opinions of Christmas, your characters can have differing opinions of your world’s holidays, which can even put them at violent odds with each other, or on the opposite side of the coin, encourage a sense of common ground, as we’ve started to do by saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” in case the people we’re talking to don’t happen to be Christian.
In America in 2012 the so-called “War on Christmas” is an imaginary creation of socially retarded TV pundits, but in your world an oppressive regime that for lack of a better analogy “cancels Christmas” can be a fascinating motivation for all sorts of interesting conflict, in the same way that an effort to put an end to the Solstice Sacrifice is something a hero could really get behind.
Think through those holidays. The birth or death of a significant figure (either religious or secular) can be a source of holidays. Both Christmas and Martin Luther King, Jr. Day fall into that category. There are holidays like Veteran’s Day, which used to be called Armistice Day, that celebrate the end of a war—that’s usually something worth celebrating. Then there are days that honor a group of people, as Veteran’s Day has become or Labor Day was meant to be. And then what do these holidays eventually morph into? Memorial Day (originally established to honor the Civil War dead) has become the “unofficial start of summer” and Labor Day the unofficial end of summer, and almost no one really thinks about Civil War veterans or labor union members on those days, much like Christmas for a lot of American households, like mine, has lost its religious significance and become an annual Spending of Money Festival.
And that reminds me: Your world can have its own version of Scrooge, too!