With the holiday season passing us, I think it is a good time to look around us and figure out how we can put this in a fiction world. Looking at our own holidays is a great way to help world-build and create believable celebrations in your own world. A well designed world that includes holidays may also provide a look into the history and cultures that exist in the world.
Looking at Christmas, we can see different elements coming from different cultures with different priorities, the two that jump to the front being religion and harvest. Religion has been with us since the first cognizant person witnessed the first lightning storm or felt his first earthquake. To their primitive culture, such acts could only be accomplished via a supreme being. It’s not surprising then that many of the holidays surround the worship or appeasement of a god. Even the name holidays comes from Holy Days.
The date is centered around the Winter Solstace, or December 21st. The Norse celebrated Yule, which focused on the return of the sun. If you watched the sun in the sky, each day it would drop lower and lower as the days got shorter. On solstice, the sun would stop its movement and start rising as the days got longer. To celebrate, they would get large logs and light them on fire and feast until the flames went out. The Norse believed that each spark from these Yule logs, which could burn for around 12 days, symbolized a new life that would be born in the forthcoming year.
The Romans celebrated Saturnalia in honor of Saturn, the god of Agriculture. Since farming and agriculture paused for the passing of winter, it provided time for celebration and feasts. Saturnalia also centered on the rebirth of the sun and the hopes of a good new year. One big part of the celebration was the day of Gift-giving on December 23rd. On this day, people gathered to give gifts to friends, family, and patrons.
Finally, with the coming of Christianity, many of these celebrations were converted in an effort to bring more people into the religion. As society progressed and became industrialized, the rebirth of the sun and the worry about growing crops for the next year subsided. Despite this, the history and concerns of our people in the past is still evident in how we celebrate now.
Looking back at fiction, you can put these same ideas into your holidays. If the people of your world never had to worry about food or the loss of the sun, then having them celebrate a Christmas like celebration wouldn’t make sense. Also, in a world where Gods are not only worshiped but actively walk and affect the lives of their followers, certain requirements may be demanded upon them. Think of how these requirements would change through the years. Perhaps a past god required one thing and was replaced with the current god who actively protested the celebrations. How would this effect the world and those living in it?
Even if you don’t tell the world of all the history, it can help give ideas and really give color to the world. If nothing else, it will give you, the author, a deeper understanding of your world and the people who live there. And that can only help improve a novel.
The history of religious events always fascinates me, particularly looking for those older pre-Christianity influences which were subsumed into the early Christian calendar. One of my WIPs is set in the Egyptian Amarna Age during a religious upheaval involving the outlawing of the old polytheistic cults and a new monotheistic (although still pre-Christian) religion. Although not a central feature of the story, I really enjoyed exploring the clash between the two religions and the impact it would have had on the lives of the people who lived through it.
Great post! To say that people worship the sun or some deity is not enough – we need to ask why this is so important that people are willing to take their time away from survival activities to do it. Just because we have a history of doing something a certain way, we can’t blindly assume that the same reasoning works in our fictional world. And, as Kylie indicated, the clash between philosophies can be very entertaining but I think that only happens if the author understands the constructs/motivations for the religions thereby giving the characters depth and reasons for their actions.