Worldbuilding: Festivals & Holidays

With the holidays coming up, and Thanksgiving in only two days, I thought it would be fitting for this week to write a post about holidays and celebrations.

To be entirely honest, festivals are something that I don’t work hard enough at in my worldbuilding. I’m a fairly lazy person, something that I aim to overcome but that can sometimes translate into my worldbuilding. Festivals and holidays can be difficult to develop, but they’re easier if you have a starting point. That starting point is what I’ll attempt to give you in this post.

First of all, when is the holiday and what does it celebrate? Is it dedicated to a god? Is it to celebrate the coming of a new season? Is it to celebrate a great historical event? The last two would, of course, have automatic dates attached. With the first one, you’d have to take what you know of the religion and base the date on that. Still related to time, how long does the celebration last? Is it celebrated on the day of the holiday or sometime before or after? Maybe the holiday is on a certain date but the celebration is on a certain day of the week, so if the holiday is on the 13th but that’s a Friday, and the people always celebrate that holiday (or all holidays, even) on a Sunday. (And Friday the 13th brings up an unrelated question – are there any taboos or superstitions in your world and, if so, what are they?)

What foods and drinks are common for the holiday? Are these eaten/drunk on the holiday or at the celebration, if the two are separate? Are they entirely exotic compared to normal meals? Are they similar to a common food? (For example, chicken is eaten fairly often, while turkey is generally eaten at Thanksgiving and not much else.) Are there common foods mixed in or is everything unusual? Are there any foods that are only eaten at a particular point in the celebration? (For instance, communion is taken at a certain point in church. Which isn’t a holiday, exactly, but that’s the idea. Another example would be my family’s Thanksgiving tradition of setting two candy corn by each plate, which can only be eaten after that person has said two things they’re thankful for.)

Which brings me to the traditions. Do traditions differ by country? Some countries might not even celebrate a certain holiday, while others do. Do different regions within a country celebrate differently? Different cities? Different families? At what point do things start or stop being “universal”? (For example, nearly everyone in the U.S. celebrates Independence Day with fireworks, whether they’re setting them off or just watching, but I’m fairly certain my family is the only one that has an annual hat contest.) Are there any traditions used by smaller factions that the general population would frown upon?

How many people generally celebrate together? Does a whole city congregate? Only a family or two? Is it something celebrated with friends and family? Are there multiple celebrations with different groups of people? Are these always scheduled the same or does it differ from year to year (or however frequently the festival is celebrated)?

What are common decorations? Are there any decorations at all? Are there layers of decorations (like a Christmas tree, which is a decoration and gets decorated itself)? What do people think of these decorations? Do they think they’re beautiful? Ugly? Unnecessary? Do they wish they could keep them up all year? Are they glad when they come down? How do the decorations tie in with the holiday? How did they come to be traditions? And how do these differ from country to country, region to region, city to city, family to family?

What are common activities for the celebration? Are gifts given? Are there certain speeches or prayers given? Are games played and, if so, which ones? (It could also be good to think if those are unique to your world or if your reader would automatically recognize them.) How do these tie in with the holiday? If gifts are given, is there a certain reason why? Are they confined to certain categories? (For instance, you’re only allowed to give flowers for a spring festival, or… you’re not allowed to give toys at a coming-of-age ceremony.) Who says the speeches or prayers if there are any?

Hopefully these have given you some ideas and gotten the wheels in your head turning. There’s a lot to think about, but if you have holidays in your story it’s good to know how they work. You’ll impress your reader with the depth of your worldbuilding. One last note: Don’t base your holidays too heavily on existing holidays if you don’t want your readers to wonder if your world is connected to ours somehow. It’s not realistic to have a fantasy world with a holiday that’s clearly based on Christmas, or even one that’s called “Yulemas” and takes place in the winter, whether it seems like Christmas or not, if the world isn’t connected to Earth. (The above example is drawn from Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas. I’ve wondered ever since if Erilea is somehow connected to Earth.)

Happy worldbuilding. :)

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