Holidays are fun whether they are real or imagined. Fictional holidays tend to pop up often in science fiction and fantasy genres. The inclusion of holidays can round out details of world building, provided a point of connection between the reader and the story, and act as a plot device.
As a festive fanatic and lover of all things holiday, I have plenty of experience incorporating holidays in my books. My current WIP opens on the day of a fictional holiday that is celebrated to mark the date of a past rebellion, but I show how the day is celebrated and how it impacts my main character’s work, family, and social life.
Holidays can enhance your world-building
Readers enjoy immersive well thought out worlds. That means the devil is in the details.
Incorporating holidays is a great way to add texture into your world building landscape. Because holidays incorporate shared values, customs, and traditions, they can speak words on the type of society within your world, without you having to do it. Alas, they are intriguing to the reader and can help you avoid a dreaded info-dump.
Need help creating a holiday?
Here’s a rapid-fire list of ideas…
- Use an existing holiday as a base. Tweak the names and a few details to make it fit in the realism established in your story.
- Look at the seasons/weather. A lot of holidays are seasonal. They might mark the start or end of seasons, especially in places where agriculture is of high importance. Your story may have a holiday to mark the start and end of the growing season.
- Look at the calendar. This doesn’t have to be the real calendar, but the one you’ve created for your world. A lot of cultures celebrate the start of a new year, or have special events that take place during specific solar and lunar events (such as the solstice or equinox).
- Select a specific event. Such as the Fourth of July or even Guy Fawkes Day, there are many real holidays that celebrate each year on the same date in remembrance of an event.
- Select a specific person. Some holidays could celebrate the leader of your nation. Or there could be a holiday that remembers a significant person in your world. However, “person” could be broad. It could celebrate a group of people, like Mother’s Day. Or could be even broader, like celebrating the dead.
- Consider the religion of your world. You often establish religion and belief systems when crafting your larger world building elements. Religious holidays could range from feasts and jovial affairs to quiet gatherings for penance and reflection. If you have a pantheon of gods, there could be holidays dedicated to a specific deity.
- Look at other world building details. Consider what could unite people in your world to celebrate. Are most people linked by their occupation? Is there a spectator event or tournament that brings people together? Is there an opportunity for an economy/industry holiday (e.g. Black Friday)? Are there holidays that mark a rite of passage or coming of age experience?
Ideas for traditions and customs
A lot can be said about the people who celebrate your fictional holiday by how they celebrate it. The customs and traditions add the heart and soul to the holiday. Without these details, the holiday lacks vibrancy and authenticity.
- Special food and beverage
- Halting of work/school
- Early release of work/school
- Church services/ceremonies/rituals
- Special clothing or costumes
- Myths and folklore
- Forbidden actions
- Exchanging tokens or gifts
- Special music (instruments or songs)
- Associated colors
- Temporary truces or ceasefire
- Performances or reenactments
- Changes in typical daily activity
- Traveling or pilgrimages
Additional Tips and Considerations
Once you have a skeletal idea for your holiday, its traditions, and how it fits into the context of your world and your story, there are a few more details you might wish to consider.
- Not everyone may celebrate the holiday the same– traditions could alter based on larger scale differences like socioeconomic class, race, geographic location, or it could be minor differences between families, caused by unique traditions being passed one generation to the next.
- People often have different opinions regarding holidays– Some people may look at holidays that are universally seen as jovial, and be angered or saddened by them. You could have your Scrooges that don’t recognize the holiday. Or you could have characters who have negative memories or emotions brought up because of the holiday. You could even have jaded or cynical characters who act out because of the holiday.
- Holidays can evolve – Consider how the holiday might have changed over the years. Propaganda and advertising can shift the way holidays are celebrated away from the root of how they were founded. New traditions can be made or adopted.
Holidays as Plot Devices
Holidays are great in stories because they can often change the status quo. The holiday may alter your character’s ordinary schedule. They may be amongst people they usually don’t see. Holidays can bring people closer together. Holidays can even be reasons for ceasefires or temporary breaks in whatever central conflict courses through your story.
Holidays can act as a catalyst for drama and retribution to follow. Or they can be used as a way to create a solution, when “all the planets will align,” so to speak.
Since holidays usually occur on a specific date, they can be very useful for establishing a ticking time bomb (tension creating tropes). Your main character could be aware of a cataclysmic event that is supposed to happen on a specific day already causes a compressed timeline to create a solution. If that specific day is already filled with preparations proceeding it or large-scale events, the stakes and the tension can be lifted.
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