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Holidays And Celebrations

J. K. Rowling was not alone in making use of this-world holidays. C. S. Lewis created a powerful, and Christian, message in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by referencing the fact that Narnia suffered under a never-ending winter–always winter and never Christmas.
| Nov 26, 2012 | 24 comments |

The topic of holidays and celebrations in speculative fiction was actually the one I hoped to explore last week, but came down sick. I apologize for my absence!

As I mentioned in a post on my own site, this time of the year, for some reason, spurs me to pick up fantasy that I’ve loved. This year (brace yourselves because I know some of you will be shocked anew) I’m re-reading Harry Potter.

No matter what your opinion of the books theologically, I think there’s a lot to appreciate regarding the world J. K. Rowling constructed. Basically she took the familiar (English boarding schools) and superimposed the imagined (wizardry). Hence, the students had a regular routine of classes–not of English and math and science, but of Potions and Herbology and Defense against the Dark Arts.

In addition to appropriately titled textbooks and library references, homework assignments and tests, Rowling added another element that enriched her worldbuilding–holidays and celebrations. Primarily she used the same formula for these as she did for the classes, interweaving the familiar with the imagined.

Consequently, in various Harry Potter books, Christmas and Halloween feature prominently, along with decorations and vacation breaks and presents and parties. This celebration of the familiar grounds the books in this world.

At the same time, Rowling added peculiarly magical events such as the Quiddich World Cup and the Tri-Wizard Tournament, with the accompanying ball to honor the school champions, that gave the world a rich uniqueness.

Certainly much of the activity surrounding these events is “borrowed” from such real life activities as soccer’s World Cup and perhaps the Olympics, but Rowling, as she did with the school elements, adds peculiar “wizardly” aspects. For example, during one Halloween celebration, pumpkins carved into jack-o-lanterns are so large they appear to have been created by engorgement enchantments.

Rowling was not alone in making use of this-world holidays. C. S. Lewis created a powerful, and Christian, message in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by referencing the fact that Narnia suffered under a never-ending winter–always winter and never Christmas. One of the signs that Aslan had returned, in fact, was the appearance of Father Christmas (most commonly called Santa Claus here in the US).

As I recall, in the same book the characters later enjoyed a celebration reminiscent of the May Day festivities around a Maypole.

Holidays and celebrations seem to be a stable in society. Many pagan cultures held festivals and commemorations, some connected to their religious beliefs, and certainly Western society under the influence of Christianity fostered holidays consistent with the tenets of their faith. Consequently, novels that incorporate familiar festivities seem anchored in reality.

I tend to think this element of worldbuilding is under-utilized, however. Or maybe I’m oblivious to its use. Help me out. What novels do you recall that make use of either familiar celebrations or holidays or that create their own unique festivities? How do you think their use contributed to the story?

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Yvonne Anderson
Member

Oh, dear — my Wednesday post will be on the subject of holidays as well. But you come at it from a different angle and point to a different aspect, so mine won’t seem like a re-hash. (I hope!)
In answer to your question, the only novels that come to mind that mention holidays, festivals, etc., are my own — partly because I’m not very well-read, but mostly because my brain is a sieve and doesn’t hold much! However, I did make it a point to include festivals in my Gannah series because I thought it was an important part of a people’s culture that’s too often overlooked in stories.
I expect readers will come up with an extensive list of novels in which these kinds of celebrations play a role, and I’ll say, “Oh, yes, of course! Why didn’t I think of that?” But until others jog my memory, I’ll agree with you: holidays seem to be under-utilized in worldbuilding.

Alassiel
Guest
Alassiel

I was actually thinking about this in my own works recently.  I need to think about the cultures of my world and figure out what sort of events they would have holidays to commemorate and how they would celebrate them.  It can tell you a lot about what a people group values.

I can’t think of any examples of holidays in speculative fiction of the top of my head either.  I’m even browsing my bookshelves, looking for anything I may have missed.  Holidays do seem under-utilized, especially as they are so important to a culture.  I mean, look at the holidays of the Old Testament and how integral they were to the Jews and their faith. 

E. Stephen Burnett
Guest

Interestingly, the Harry Potter books’ emphasis is on covering the whole school year, including great details about holidays — to the point of “distracting from the plot,” except that few readers would complain! This brings to mind the tradition in many Christian denominations of the “church calendar.” It ties all the holidays together and fits them more specifically in a kind of “re-enactment” of the Biblical true story over the year. I’ve thought for a while that some Christians may need to recapture this. We have Easter, then Christmas, and aren’t much sure what to do with the in-between.

From Yvonne:

my Wednesday post will be on the subject of holidays as well.

Yes, and it looks great (editor privilege!) and definitely from a different angle. It seems like SF contributors, and readers, love holiday discussions. I wonder why?

My guess: because we love truth-based, fantastic celebration. It all ties together.

Kessie Carroll
Member

This is something I need to really consider in my own stories. Since they’re urban fantasy set in our world (in America, too), I can use all of our regular holidays.
 
I did have loads of fun in one story (which alas will never see the light of day because of plot problems). The area of the world where the story was taking place was a bunch of cities built up on really high plateaus. Down below is the river and farms in the floodplain. Like the ancient Nile delta, every year the river floods and covers the floodplain, and the people up on the plateaus hold a big feast and celebration during the week the floods come down. They give out free food and decorate with blue and gold, and crescent moons predominate the decorations, because the alignment of the world’s two moons is what brings the floods.
 
Of course, the bad guys were also trying to harness the power generated by the moons and floods for their own nefarious purposes. But it was great fun centering a story’s plot around a holiday. I approach my worlds not so much as alien planets as other countries. For me, visiting a country like India would be about like visiting another planet. So I try to pack that same “familiar but weird” into my other worlds.

Galadriel
Guest

I have four seasonal-based holidays in my work in progress. Each has its own ‘element,’  story, and instrumental section. For example, winter is the Feast of Flames, focusing on the horn section of the orchestra and the tale of Micaiah.

Lauren
Guest
Lauren

Gosh, I’m coming up short on speculative fiction that utilizes holidays, too, but then, I’m fairly new to the genre.  The first thing that comes to mind though is the poem “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” which begins with a New Year Celebration; New Year’s continues to figure into the plot as well. 
 
Is my English major showing? 🙂
 
Honestly though, I should be able to think of something more recent than the 14th c. or C.S. Lewis.  I don’t even recall Stephen Lawhead incorporating holidays.
 
Anyway, this post has definitely inspired me to work some holidays into my current work in progress. Thanks for the inspiration!

Bob Menees
Guest
Bob Menees

Well since everyone’s talking about the use of holiday in their own stories… mine uses a perpetual ‘Christmas’. Every evening the Greatwings light the candles and ring the bells on every tree in the Candlemas Forest to the delight of all, except for the one who plans the forest’s destruction.
Everyone has an emotional connection to holidays and their traditions. Writers should use that to their advantage.

Paul Lee
Member

I tend to think this element of worldbuilding is under-utilized, however. Or maybe I’m oblivious to its use. Help me out. What novels do you recall that make use of either familiar celebrations or holidays or that create their own unique festivities? How do you think their use contributed to the story?

I agree that holidays are under utilized facets of worldbuilding.  The best fantasy and science fiction writers should certainly take holidays into account when developing their worlds, but I think they often simply don’t find their way into the immediate plot.  I know the Appendices of The Lord of the Rings indicate holidays — or at least one holiday that the Hobbits observe — but I don’t think the holiday is mentioned at all.  The Fellowship didn’t have time for it, evidently.
 
One of the coolest fantasy-world holidays that I’ve read about is Sunday.  In the world of The Wheel of Time, “Sunday” is a holiday that occurs only once a year.  Unfortunately, no Sunday celebration is directly recorded by the plot narrative, but the holiday is mentioned in the dialog.

D. M. Dutcher
Member

A good example I found in an indie book was The League of Ascenders by Spring Hellams. The book isn’t the best: think a Christian form of X-men, but too safe and long for comfort. It used Christmas pretty well though, as it wasn’t just to advance the romantic and relationship goals, but to me at least it came across as enjoying it for its own sake. Delighting in celebrating it, giving gifts, getting dressed up, and the whole nine yards.

I have to admit I’m a sucker for the whole “Christmas episode” thing in other media. Not sure why though since I really don’t celebrate the holiday in depth, and I work in retail.

Shannon McDermott
Guest

Consequently, in various Harry Potter books, Christmas and Halloween feature prominently, along with decorations and vacation breaks and presents and parties.
 

No Easter?
 
The Wingfeather Saga began with the Dragon Day Festival; the third book made prominent mention of the Bannick Durga, a week of games that helped determine who would be Keeper of the Hollows.
 
Starflower showed the celebration of the Faerie queen’s birthday, which they observed once every hundred years – does that count? In the King Raven Trilogy Stephen Lawhead used Church holidays. Tolkien created holidays for Middle Earth – you can find them in The Silmarillion. And that’s all that comes to mind right now.
 
Holidays contribute to world-building – especially if they are religious in nature, and not the sort of thing (such as the harvest) that is almost universally celebrated. But what holds back on holidays in speculative fiction is plot necessity: Even if it’s interesting, is it relevant?

Tamra Wilson
Member
Tamra Wilson

I’m incorporating Christmas into my stories (unpublished). I’m working on one now where my elves (note in the Hobbit reading group) help Father Christmas defeat Krampus, the spirit of chaos who has a beef with Christmas and all it stands for. 

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