With Christmas one day behind us, the New Year a few days ahead, and being right in the middle of Boxing Day (in the UK and Canada), I’ve been thinking about the significance of holidays around our little planet.
Last week I wrote about the importance of Setting in creating stories, and the various roles that Setting plays. I mentioned that one aspect of Setting is culture, either the one from which your characters come or a different one in which your characters must act. And one intriguing part of a culture is what it chooses to celebrate.
What do holidays tell us about the people who observe them? How do they begin? Do observances change over time, or do traditions pretty much remain the same? Let’s look at Boxing Day for a minute. Though I’m fairly familiar with it, I decided to see what else I could discover. According to Wikipedia, Boxing Day probably began in the Middle Ages, when metal boxes were set at the doors of churches for parishioners to contribute to care for the needy. Later, when servants of the wealthy had to work and be away from their families on Christmas Day, their employers gave them the 26th off and sent them home with boxes containing gifts and sometimes leftovers from the Christmas feast. These days, people give gifts to those who “serve” them throughout the year, such as their local mail carrier. I think it’s a great tradition.
Like Christmas–celebrated with many variations throughout Christian parts of the world–the Jewish holidays of Hanukkah and Passover are remembrances of deeply significant events in Hebrew history. The Seder dinner of Passover is conducted in a very specific manner to remind the participants of how God preserved their people in Egypt.
Some celebrations come from practical day-to-day activities rather than religious events. Agrarian societies celebrate seasons of planting and then of harvest. In some parts of the U.S., opening weekend of hunting season is becoming a holiday. Hunters look forward to time spent with family and buddies in the fields and forests as much as they hope to fill their freezers with fresh venison.
Many holidays are local. I grew up in Utah, where July 24th was a state holiday commemorating the arrival of the first Mormon pioneer company in the Salt Lake valley. Most farm towns in Cache Valley had their own festivities: Black-and-White Days in Richmond, a dairy-farming community with black-and-white Holstein cows, and Health Days in Smithfield, where school children with clean bills of health got to march in the town parade, to name just two.
There are also personal events: birthdays, marriages, and graduations, for example. Traditions vary from family to family and cultures to culture, but all have significance to the people they honor.
As you develop your settings, don’t forget the richness that an “occasion” can add, especially if it moves your story or affects your character(s) in some way. If you’re writing about real places and time periods, do a little research on what holidays your characters would likely celebrate, and how. If you’re creating your own worlds, ask yourself a few questions: What kinds of events are important to my characters? What were the origins of their celebrations? How do they observe important days, and why? Do they have foods eaten only on their holidays? (Never forget the food!!!) Do they wear particular clothing? Have their traditions changed over time? Do these things even matter to my character(s)? If not, why not? Have a little fun with it.
If any of you have already included holidays in your stories, please add a comment and share your insights. Meanwhile, here’s wishing all of you a healthy and productive New Year!