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.
on 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?

Best known for her aspirations as an epic fantasy author, Becky is the sole remaining founding member of Speculative Faith. Besides contributing weekly articles here, she blogs Monday through Friday at A Christian Worldview of Fiction. She works as a freelance writer and editor and posts writing tips as well as information about her editing services at Rewrite, Reword, Rework.
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  1. 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.

    • Yvonne, don’t worry about writing on similar topics. It happens, but we’re all individuals so our emphasis, our perspective, our application will be different. I mean, at this time of year, it really is no surprise that we’re thinking about the subject of holidays. 😉 I look forward to what you have to say.

      Ah, your stories use festivals. Excellent!

      I’ve read a fair share of Christian speculative fiction and can think of very few titles that make use of this aspect of culture. The general market fiction I have read most recently doesn’t use celebrations or holidays either. But like you, I keep thinking others will come up with a host of titles I’ve either not read or have overlooked when it comes to this aspect of their worldbuilding.


  2. Alassiel says:

    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. 

    • Alassiel, a writer friend of mine first made me aware of what celebrations can do to deepen a world. I thought she was brilliant to point it out and I want to incorporate it more in my own work as well.

      As I started to think about holidays, though, I honestly couldn’t come up with other stories that make them a key component as Rowling’s did. But I, like you, think other commenters will start rattling off titles to show that there are MANY stories that make use of them.

      We’ll see, I guess. 😉


  3. 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.

  4. Kessie says:

    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.

    • Kessie, the flood celebration does sound interesting, with lots of unique possibilities. I hope you can use that world at least, if not salvage the plot.

      I think urban fantasies are probably positioned best to make use of existent holidays. It’s something we all look forward to but so often forget that our characters might have that same mindset–looking forward to something special.


  5. Galadriel says:

    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.

  6. Lauren says:

    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!

    • Ooohh, good catch on “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” Lauren. I would never have thought of that one.

      I do think it’s interesting that so few speculative stories–at least the ones we’re thinking of here at Spec Faith–make use of something so much a part of culture. I thought perhaps I was simply overlooking them, but the fact that collectively we aren’t coming up with lots and lots reinforces my thought that this element is under-utilized in worldbuilding.


  7. Bob Menees says:

    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.

    • A perpetual ‘Christmas.’ Now that’s an interesting twist, Bob.

      I agree that we all do have an emotional connection to the holidays–even if it is depression and loneliness as is so often reported. We long for or dread the holidays. We enjoy or endure. We rarely are neutral. It seems to me we can use either aspect. We can enrich the dominion of darkness by giving them their own holidays or deepen character development by showing a character’s response to missing a special, longed-for celebration. Lots of gold to mine in this one, I think.


  8. Bainespal says:

    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.

    • I was trying to think of a holiday in LotR and couldn’t come up with one. Lots of celebrations, though. Interesting that Tolkien had at least the one in mind, though. It shows how rich the world was to him.

      That’s as it should be, I think. Even if the holiday never plays a part in the story, that it exists can still enrich the world because the author has one more piece of understanding about the people.

      That Sunday holiday is interesting! I haven’t read WoT, so wasn’t aware of that. Thanks for adding it to the list, Bainespal.


  9. D.M. Dutcher says:

    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.

    • D. M., I find it interesting that you liked the use of Christmas for the sense of the world that it gave rather than for how it contributed to the plot. So many others, myself included, would rather the holiday or celebration be present only as a necessity to the plot or character development.

      Once upon a time, we seemed to enjoy reading description more and thus elements of the setting were sufficient unto themselves. More and more, however, we don’t want the plot stalled as we take a look at the culture. So the writer must add depth on the fly. Perhaps that’s why we’re not finding a long list of speculative novels that use celebrations and holidays.

      And yet, there is the very recent Harry Potter . . .


      • D.M. Dutcher says:

        Well, I’m not usually a fan of long detail that has nothing to do with the plot. It doesn’t mean I don’t like long-form writing, but too often it can stall a book’s flow for me, and many times can be completely removed from the book with little harm done. That book suffered from it, where they had a pretty hilarious villain who was underutilized in the plot over that kind of detail.

        I don’t know though, I still liked a big scene where everyone dresses up and gives each other presents. If you’re going to evoke Christmas, go hardcore, and Spring did. Hard to explain why I like something that breaks all my internal rules of writing, but hey, go figure.

  10. 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?

    • No Easter that I recall. No special observance on Sunday either, though more than once a church is a prominent part of the setting.

      Great adds to the books using celebrations or holidays, Shannon. I’m just now reading Starflower, so I’ll make a note to watch for that.

      I agree with you about plot necessity, to a point, but the more I’ve thought about this, the more I see the potential. As I mentioned in an earlier comment, people have a variety of reactions to holidays and that could play a part in showing who a character is. Those on quests could bemoan the celebrations they’re missing. All sorts of things. It’s an aspect of worldbuilding I’m just beginning to explore, but the more I do, the more I’m convinced there’s a lot holidays and celebrations can do for a story.


      • Starflower says:

        Emerging from the shadows to note: Easter is mentioned in Harry Potter, in the form of Easter break, and in Goblet of Fire, Mrs. Weasley sends her children, Harry, and Hermione Easter baskets. (I’ve read the series so many times I’ve lost count, and I have a good memory. 🙂 ) I love the way HP includes holidays in the story, and I’m hoping to include a Christmas celebration in the urban fantasy I’m writing.

  11. ionaofavalon says:

    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. 

  12. […] the past I’ve discussed celebrations in general and Thanksgiving Day in particular. It only seems right to add Memorial Day as a holiday that could […]

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