I was joined by Erin Peterson, Lesley Smith, Janet Harriett, and Brian Dolton for this discussion. At first I had imagined that the topic of Holidays might be easily exhausted, but we discovered quite a number of interesting ideas in the course of the hour.
At the start I contrasted the idea of using existing holidays in a fantasy or science fiction world with creating new holidays for that world. I had encountered quite a few stories as a child where existing world holidays were imported into a fantasy, and hadn't really noticed it then - but these days it always seems odd to me when I find Christmas or other familiar holidays transplanted. Erin remarked that this doesn't just go for major holidays, but also for things like birthday parties and celebrations. I have seen birthday parties handled well, but usually they have been deliberately altered by the author to fit better into the setting, such as a futuristic birthday with special-ordered weather that I saw in a story by my friend Keyan Bowes. You have to ask yourself, "Why would people celebrate?" Also, "How easy would it be to celebrate?" Erin noted that in a medieval world, travel would be difficult, making it far less likely that people would get together. Logistical questions like this can be a big deal, and if they are ignored, the scenario is likely to look false. In my Varin world, where the nobles are inbred and the noble Race is dying out, birthdays look different because they are much more congratulatory and less "happy" - the greater concern is with a child's success in taking one step closer to adulthood and being able to provide the Race with children.
We had a brief discussion of the way that holidays are handled in World of Warcraft, where they are imported with a lot of their details intact (like Thanksgiving with turkeys) but given an entirely different underlying support within the game. If an author chooses to import a particular holiday, this kind of option must be considered. It's hard to import Christmas without Christianity - but if you rename it Winterfair, you can simply overlay a different meaning on the existing holiday.
As we then discussed, people in the real world have been doing exactly this for millennia. Brian called it "go ahead and celebrate, but now you're doing it to worship our god." Since it was Valentine's Day, Janet mentioned Lupercalia, one of at least two holidays I've heard mentioned as having been subsumed by Valentine's Day (the other one being Gamelion). Another interesting variation on this happens when a holiday is imported cross-culturally. Japan has imported Christmas, but it is less a celebration of Christianity than it is an opportunity to eat white cakes topped with strawberries, and on Christmas Eve it has become traditional to eat KFC fried chicken. Walking in the streets of Tokyo, I have come across life-sized statues of Colonel Sanders wearing Santa suits at Christmastime.
From there we moved on to creating holidays. I mentioned having created a sort of "Founder's Day" celebration for one of the religions of my Varin world. Lesley rightly pointed out that holidays don't have to be religious. They can have to do with natural things beginning and ending, as with New Year's Day and many other holidays. Brian mentioned that in the world he's working with, a former Empire had a group of scholars come together to invent a logical calendar independently of any religious motivation, but the calendar was then taken advantage of by the members of different religions, who used the "extra days" of the calendar as days of rest where naturally one would be expected to go to church (because you had time).
Deciding which days are rest days is also something worth doing in the world as you've created it. So is considering which people have made important contributions to the society and might be worth honoring with a holiday like Queen's Birthday (in the British Commonwealth) or President's Day (in the US). Whether these days are taken seriously and reverently or not is another separate question.
Then there are the days where we celebrate even when we don't have an official government holiday. Erin mentioned the Superbowl - which has quite a number of rituals associated with it even though it's not a day off. She describe driving swiftly across Los Angeles with no traffic on Superbowl Sunday, which is unheard of. Someone said there should be a zombie holiday, so I mentioned my friend Janice Hardy's lawn zombie, which she dresses up for the holidays. In Melbourne, Australia, they actually have an official day off on the first Tuesday of November for a horse race.
Another factor to consider in dealing with holidays is how they affect working people versus other people. Do people get paid more for working on a holiday? What kind of logistical support does the holiday have? (Do people simply drink at the office?) Are holidays split by social status, as with Boxing Day, which was traditionally the servants' day off after they'd worked all of Christmas Day? (Now people tend to go shopping and/or watch cricket, at least in Australia.)
Janet noted that how you celebrate a holiday depends on your location and worldview, and that there are differences in the way people celebrate between the Bible Belt and other regions of the US, such as whether people get a day off for Good Friday. My husband also noted this when he moved here, because Easter is more significant in Australia and everyone gets Good Friday and Easter Monday off. Janet then mentioned the idea of competing religious structures, which is entirely relevant to Easter, because everyone gets a break in the spring, but is it Spring Break? Or is it Easter Break? If there are multiple religions, whose holidays get the most honor? Yom Kippur is not a national holiday, for example. Do some holidays, which are less important in one religion, gain more importance because of their proximity to major holidays of another religion (like Hanukkah with Christmas)? Erin noted that though religions may compete, often the underlying culture is similar.
I thought the idea of competing religions was interesting because it's not something I often see in fictional worlds. Brian described how he's working with a world that has several religions with sub-factions. It can be challenging to portray that kind of complexity. We asked the question, "If you have a complex religious situation, does it require a novel to portray?"
Janet contends that it's possible to portray complexity well, even in a short story. She told us about a short story of hers where a child in a generational ship (which became generational accidentally) feels a lack of connection to Earth, and so when the others on the ship celebrate their departure day she goes into a holiday depression.
Holiday depression is a real phenomenon in our world, and worth considering. Often I think it comes from having an outsider feeling when holidays are often so much about family groups, intimacy and inclusion. There are also complex expectations of behavior associated with holidays, including expectations for what kind of emotional states you should be experiencing.
Erin remarked that often in fiction, only feast get-together are included, but that holidays are not just about food. What does the spirit of celebration involve in your world? It probably shouldn't be all happy and joyful times. There are plenty of solemn holidays as well, such as Lent, or Ramadan, Ash Wednesday, Rosh Hashana or Yom Kippur. Memorial day was once a sad occasion. Often what you find in these holidays is a balance of joy and somberness. I've often heard Christmas or Winter Solstice spoken about as being a reason to have a party when it's dark and one would otherwise despair. I think it was Janet who mentioned Groundhog Day as being for "whimsy on a cold day." I mentioned how in Japan, Valentine's Day has been divided into "Valentine's Day" on February 14, and "White Day" on March 14. The first of the two is for girls to give chocolate to all the boys they like, and the second for only the boys who like those girls specially to give them marshmallows (can you tell I always thought this was a bum deal for the girls?). There are also family holidays like birthdays and anniversaries. Janet mentioned Guy Fawkes day and Bastille Day, which are named for important historical events. The beginnings and endings of wars are also celebrated. There is Independence Day. For adopted children, there may be both birthdays and Adoption Days.
There are all sorts of possibilities.
Thanks to everyone who attended and made this such an interesting discussion. Today at 11am PST we will be discussing the use of metaphor in worldbuilding (and writing of course!). I hope to see you there!