Religion in Fantasy – Holidays
by Rose Hill
The word “holidays” comes straight from “holy days,” but don’t let that fool you. There are more to holidays than just days sacred to a religion–or at least, there can be depending on your worldbuilding. Holidays can be secular or religious or some combination thereof; they can shift from one side to the other and back over the course of time. Secular holidays are likely to be country or culture specific, shared by people even if they have different religions. Religious holidays will be specific to each religion, and are unlikely to be shared outside of the religion (though this can still happen in blended families or if a particular religion has a lot of influence in the society).
Today, we’re going to be talking about developing religious holidays.
Holidays can vary wildly in subject, tone, timeframe, and methods of celebration. Some subjects are common (though not universal) across cultures: seasonal markings, ancestor remembrance, New Year celebrations. But one need not be limited to only these celebrations, and if these things are not important to your cultures, they might not be considered holidays. Similarly, parties are quite common for holidays, but there can also be reflective or mournful holidays as well. As many similarities as there are across holidays, there are differences too. Create what fits for your society and your world.
Holidays needn’t be celebrated by all the people of a religion. It is entirely possible to have group specific holidays that don’t let all people participate. Perhaps a goddess of fertility has a holiday that’s just for mothers. Maybe a deity of youth has a holiday that’s just for children.
Holidays can be of varying importance, both to your characters and the culture at large. A country that has a long, hard winter might have a particularly large and festive spring festival to compensate for that. An agricultural country might have a massive harvest festival, because that’s the holiday that’s sacred to their patron deity. Maybe the solstices are minor holidays because the light changes aren’t that drastic in your setting. Maybe your character’s favorite festival is the one with a baking competition, where they can try lots of new food. Maybe they have fond memories of the holiday when they met their first lover. Maybe they just love any excuse to wear costumes.
A brief list of subjects in case you need ideas:
- Seasonal markers
- Harvest and planting markers
- Animal birthing/spawning/breeding markers
- Ancestor remembrance
- New Year
- Historical event commemoration
- Opposite day
- Romance day
- Deity reverence
As I said before, seasonal markers are very common. Part of the reason they’re common is that they often tie in nicely to harvest markers, and everyone needs food to eat. However, if you have a society that has harvests year round and a fairly mellow change in seasons, your people might not have any need to mark such changes of the year. A society which doesn’t value romance likely wouldn’t have a day to celebrate it.
Deity reverence is possibly the most common holiday people think of. They go “oh, if I have a deity of X, I should have a holiday relating to that.” This isn’t necessarily the case. A single deity could have multiple holidays associated with them. The holiday/year cycle could even follow the myths of a specific deity or set of deities, such as the Wiccan myth of the Goddess with the Holly/Oak King, or the ancient Greek myth of Persephone’s travels between her mother and her husband.
Some deities might not have a holiday at all. They might be too minor, they might be officially shunned, they might simply have a different sphere of influence. If you have a deity that is honored with every little thing a person does throughout the day, they might not need a holiday to celebrate them because they’re already constantly honored. Or, they might have the biggest holiday of them all. It all depends on what works best for your society.
Opposite days show up the most, or are at least most popular, in societies that have extremely stringent social enforcement. If there are strict rules governing the interactions between the social (or any other sort of) classes, an opposite day might develop. They function as a sort of release valve, so that a particularly hidebound society doesn’t go mad from lack of options. It’s a socially acceptable time to be transgressive, which might be the only time people have to express themselves.
What is the tone of your holiday? Part of this will relate to the subject, but it can also vary quite a bit. Is your ancestor remembrance somber and mournful, or do people laugh and drink and tell funny stories of the dead? Is New Year a party, or a thoughtful look at the year past? Is the blooming of flowers a joyous time, or a reminder that the summer famine will be quickly approaching when the stores run out before the harvest begins?
The tone of a holiday can also be different between families and between individuals. Holidays can easily bring back bad memories. Consider: what is your character’s favorite holiday? What is their least favorite?
Some possible tones for your holidays:
Many holidays last a day, but they can last longer. Two days, three days, a week, a month, even more. If the holidays you have last longer than one day, are the specific activities that go along with each day? If you have a longer holy season or month, is there a specific festival or activity that marks it off? Does the tone change throughout the duration of the holiday season?
When does the holiday officially start and end? Is it from midnight to midnight? Sun up to sun down? For the duration of the rainy season’s first storm?
Methods of Celebration
There are countless ways to celebrate holidays, and they will depend largely on the subject and tone that the holiday has.
How do people decorate (themselves, each other, their homes) for the holiday? Are there flowers or plants that people hang? Are there special clothes people wear, or significant items that are displayed? Are there any symbols that would automatically conjure the thought of the holiday in a person’s head? (Think a pine tree and wrapped presents for Christmas, or a menorah with candles for Chanukah.)
What do people do during the holiday? Any number of things can be combined, but think of the major occurrences that might be standard.
- Share food
- Are certain foods traditional at each holiday?
- Gather with family
- How large of an extended family is one expected to gather with?
- Flirt with romantic interests
- How far beyond flirting is acceptable/one expected to go on this holiday?
- Compete in games
- Races, triathlons, etc…
- Play games (no winners)
- Scavenger hunts, etc…
- Visit cemeteries
- Do people just stop to visit? Do they tend the graves? Do they raise the dead from the graves for a chat?
- Go to religious services
- How long do the religious services last? Is there a common topic to the holiday?
- Dress in costumes
- Do the costumes have a theme? Are the costumes for a competition, a masquerade, trick-or-treating?
- Are there traditional dances?
- Do people go caroling? Are there solo performances? Are there traditional holiday songs? Are there parodies?
- Perform in/watch plays
- Is there a particular myth that is reenacted in plays for this holiday?
- Watch/set off fireworks
- If your society doesn’t have access to fireworks, illusion magic and fire magic could put on similar performances.
- Light bonfires
- Does everyone light their own bonfire, or is there just one per town that has to feed out to others?
- Paint/color each other
- Ink, colorful powder, henna, markers, coal, body paint, etc…
- Are particular symbols/images/patterns particularly popular for this holiday?
- Any common or standardized prayers special to this time?
- Give gifts
- Who is expected to give gifts, and who is expected to receive them?
- What level of reciprocation is expected?
- Make treaties/alliances/betrothals
- Good for days whose subject is peace-making
If ever you get stuck when making holidays, just look to current examples of holidays. What do you celebrate, and how do you celebrate it? What do others in the culture around you celebrate, and how do they celebrate their holidays? How can you change what you see in the real world to fit the cultures and species you’ve created?