Tips for GMs and Writers
What’s Your Fantasy?
Copyright © 2002Christine Morgan
Holidays, Celebrations, and Observances
With the hectic holiday season just past, and having written a MageLore Wintersfest story to serve as our card to friends and family this year, I've been spending some time pondering holidays and how they can be used to spice up fantasy worlds.
The very definition of 'holiday' is 'holy day,' implying that these are the days reserved for celebrations of a religious nature. We also recognize 'government holidays,' such as the anniversaries of the birthdates of notable figures - as I write this, it is the weekend before the observance of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday - or historical events such as Independence Day. And then there are the odd little ones that somehow make it onto the calendar, like Groundhog Day or Shopping Day (referred to in some retail circles as Black Friday, the start of the Christmas shopping season).
Each holiday carries its own baggage of customs and traditions. Some of these have origins dating back to early human history, and have gotten so changed over time that we aren't even sure why we do a certain thing on a certain day of the year … except that it's tradition.
A fantasy world, for gaming or fiction, can make use of holidays to emphasize the differences between that world and the one we know. It can provide a rich background for characters. And it can be just plain fun. Anyone remember the "Gronger Fest" strips from Knights of the Dinner Table?
Going back to the earliest forms of that old-time religion, holidays tend to go along with the seasons and reverencing nature. Spring is a time for birth, autumn for harvest, the darkest days of winter for demonstrating faith in the return of the light and the warmth.
As culture developed, and worship right along with it, early people began honoring their deities right along with the changes of the season. More gods meant more holidays so that no one deity might feel slighted. Saints weren't left out - we have a book on our shelf that lists a different saint for every single day of the year, and even then they sometimes have to double up.
A better-organized and more sophisticated religion might take over the special days of another one - I see this rationale being something along the lines of "if they're going to celebrate anyway, let's tell them they're honoring So-And-So, and over time it will become So-And-So's holiday." Now, this is my personal stance and liable to irritate some; sorry about that. I've always been more fascinated by the sociological implications of religion than the theological.
The best examples of this taking-over have got to be Christmas and Easter, in Christianity. Some stuff doesn't add up. The shepherds out in the fields suggest lambing time, which is in the spring, not the dead of winter. But some clever person of olde saw the similarities between the birth of Christ and the return of the light, and nudged the holiday around to December.
Easter must have proved a tad trickier for these ancient spin-doctors. It originated as a celebration of fertility - eggs, rabbits, how symbolic can you get? - and is now associated with the Crucifixion. That one doesn't jibe so well. The 'pagan' trappings are still a lot more pronounced.
Different religions will have their own distinct holidays, but even then, there's some competition going on. It must have been hard in the olden days for one bunch of folks to be having a good time celebrating their holidays, while another group was left out. So the leaders of that other group might have been inclined to come up with something for their people to do, to prevent anyone from being tempted to the other side of the fence.
What happens, then, when there aren't just competing religions, but a slew of gods in the same pantheon? This is typical of many fantasy worlds, in which there are acknowledged to be several gods accepted under the same umbrella of faith. When other _races are thrown into the mix too, things can get really complicated.
In the world of my MageLore and ElfLore novels, I have several different races, each with their own gods. The elves have five (one an outcast). The dwarves have one god and a bunch of saints. The orcs have a main god and a secret secondary one known only to the females. The minotaurs have one, but he's been killed. The gnomes pick and choose from among everyone else, lacking a deity of their own.
The humans of the Northlands have the most, but they are in a stage where one group, those following Galatine, are seeking to control, take over, or even eradicate the other human-worshipped deities. The humans of the Southern Plains have two, who roughly correspond to a couple of the ones acknowledged in the Northlands.
Randomly point to any day on that calendar, and it's bound to be some god's holiday.
This allows the writer or GM an extra something to have fun with. In gaming terms, a character's religion can be an advantage or a disadvantage, or, more likely, a package deal with some of both. Faith might give bonuses, healing, etc. But it may also limit a character's actions, and require special behaviors at holiday times.
The rites around a religious holiday usually involve honoring or placating a god. These generally fall into two categories: Do, and Do Not.
On the Do side, we'll find the things that are done on and around that holiday. Dressing a specific way, performing a certain ceremony, and making an offering or sacrifice would all be examples. So would demonstrating one's faith with meals and decorations; more on that later.
The Do Nots encompass giving up or avoiding specific behaviors. Some examples would include fasting, avoiding a certain type of food or drink (meat, alcohol, etc.), abstaining from sex, refraining from speaking, going bare-headed or unshaven, and so on.
Holidays were often regarded as times when not only did people make their faith known to their deity, but that the will of the deity could be made known to the people. This would be where the casting and reading of omens would come into play.
Some ancient cultures had an additional bit of practicality lurking behind set rituals. When the king and high priestess would enact the "sacred marriage," thereby inspiring everyone to follow suit, a baby boom would often result. The timing of the ceremony, in spring, would lead to the babies coming along in winter when there was less work to be done, and therefore more free time to care for the infants during those crucial early weeks.
Government and Entertainment Holidays
Some holidays come about not because of religion, but because of momentous historical events and the desire to honor important people. American examples of this would include Independence Day, Veterans' Day, Labor Day, Presidents' Day, even Mother's and Father's Day.
Over time, the original meaning of these might become subsumed by other traditions that spring up around them - how many of us celebrate Memorial Day in the spirit in which it was originally established? Three-day weekend? Barbeque! Labor Day, created to honor the workers? Special door-buster sales; everyone in retail feels really appreciated that day.
And what about the holidays that have become touchy subjects, like Columbus Day? D-Day? How do we handle those pesky ones that fall in the middle of the week instead of being neatly moved to Monday so that we get that cherished three-day weekend (I say 'we' but I don't mean 'me' in that … the schools and post offices and such may get an extra day off, even the main agency might close, but residential psychiatric facilities? We're there 24/7. At least we get holiday pay).
Our house has several calendars in it. The one from the school district doesn't dare mark any of the religious holidays (it's "winter break") for fear of getting sued. The one from our real estate agent lists holidays I've never even heard of. I've also owned themed calendars that list character birthdays and major events from novels.
Last summer, bookstores all over the country held "Harry Potter" parties on Harry's fictional birthday. I know, because my daughter went in costume as a very convincing young Hermione. Last month, Tolkien fans celebrated what would have been his eleventy-first birthday. I know people who look forward to Superbowl Sunday more than they do their own wedding anniversaries.
People in positions of power are able to 'declare' holidays. That's how Mother's Day came about, a Presidential decree after extensive lobbying by women's magazines. The Caesars did even better, reorganizing the entire calendar to make months named after themselves, and changing the New Year from spring to January. This can be a great thing in a fantasy world, especially one with a high turnover of ruling royalty.
Birthdays and Anniversaries
Celebrating birthdays is a fairly recent thing, historically speaking, and one that still isn't commonplace everywhere. In some cultures, it was considered bad luck to commemorate a birthday. Tempting fate. Asking for the gods to smack you down for presumption. Other cultures would go all-out and have birthday as well as saint's day celebrations.
When infant mortality rates were at their highest, oftentimes a child wasn't even given a name until he or she had survived a set amount of time, thereby proving that he or she was strong enough to live, and therefore worth giving a name. These occasions would be marked with ceremonies - christening or baptism being among the better-known.
Other landmarks of growing up include the passage from childhood to adulthood. Whether a bar or bat mitzvah, a confirmation, a debutante ball, or getting that first driver's license (or buying that first legal drink), these are always momentous occasions.
In earlier times, the transition between child and adult was often marked by one of two events. In the case of girls, the onset of menstruation is the big signal, and that depends entirely on biology. Boys didn't have it so lucky, since none of their cues are quite so clear-cut or dramatic as that first period. A boy might have to prove he was ready to become a man, while nature went on ahead and handled it for the girls. Because those early cultures often depended on the strength and skill of the men to survive, hallmarks of manhood might therefore revolve around hunting or warrior prowess.
Some birthdays attain more of a mystical, talismanic quality than others. At 13, we become 'official teenagers.' Many girls look forward to their Sweet Sixteen (though I have never known a single girl who got a car, which is what we were all led to expect; a Barbie-pink convertible, preferably). There's 18, when we can vote, enlist, or be drafted. And 21, when we can buy a beer (something unfair about that 3-year-gap, methinks).
After 21, birthdays get BIG. There's the Big 3-0, the Big 4-0, and so on. Looked forward to more with dread than anticipation. A lot of us buy into the notion of a time limit on accomplishments in our lives, women in particular. Not married by 35? Shazam, spinster for life, better odds of being struck by lightning. That biological clock just ticks, ticks, and winds down. Men have their mid-life crisis to look forward to, no set age for that but the time comes when they realize their shot at playing pro sports or becoming an astronaut has passed them by, and they experience the urge to recapture their youth with a motorcycle, sports car, or 20-year-old mistress (though, admittedly, I know plenty of guys who have those urges and it has nothing to do with age).
Not only do we have birthdays to worry about, we've got anniversaries. Now, let's look at that word. From "anno," meaning "year." Why, then, do I see people celebrating their six month, three month, or even weekly anniversary? Nope. Doesn't work. Usually, these are the sicky-sweety-cute lovebirds who are only dating anyway, the sort of people who, when they do get married, will continue to want to celebrate the anniversaries of the day they met, their first date, first kiss, and so on.
Anniversary. Yearly observance of the wedding date. That's good enough for me. Now, the cliché here is that a man is more likely to forget this holiday than anything else, even his wife's birthday (also a cliché). In our case, Tim suggested we wed on May 23, or 5/23, important Illuminati numbers he'd never be able to forget. So far, he's right … though he does occasionally misremember my birthday as being March 31st instead of the 30th.
Any folklore or wedding custom book will have a handy list of what gift is best suited to what anniversary. Silver for 25th, gold for 50th, we know those. However, did you know there's a leather anniversary? Woo!
Holidays and Food
One thing that is indelibly associated with holidays is the food. Custom demands it. Sometimes, the food itself even becomes the holiday - Turkey Day, anyone? But where would we be without our Christmas cookies, Easter Eggs, and popping champagne corks on New Year's, or Halloween candy?
Some of these food traditions have logical reasons. Why apple cider and pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving? Because it's in autumn, when the apples and pumpkins are ripe. Others are a little more obscure (those Easter eggs for fertility, for instance, but why ham on Easter?). Why eggnog and gingerbread only at Christmas?
Why fruitcake? I mean, I know why, because by serving a sweet treat crammed with dried fruit, our ancestors were expressing their hope that the bounties of spring would come again. But does anyone really eat it?
Not only does each holiday have its associated food tradition, but each family will as well. For us, it's breaded pork tenderloin on Christmas because that's what my grandmother used to make. For Tim's family, there's the story about the cornflake stuffing that they have to have, even though when I asked around, nobody knew where the recipe came from.
We barbeque on the 4th of July. Why? The fireworks have a basis in history, those rockets red glare and bombs bursting in air, but was Francis Scott Key noshing on hot dogs when he wrote about it? One reason that seems sensible to me is that July is too darn hot to be cooped up in a kitchen.
The food is the center of the celebration. Any celebration. Birthday cake, wedding cake, box of choccies on Valentine's Day, just about every holiday has its specific food to go with it. And what's more, because holidays are also a time for family gatherings, and family gatherings revolve around food, it's a double whammy. A party can have fabulous decorations, entertainment, games, whatnot … but if the food is sub-par, no one is going to have a good time.
Holiday Customs - games, decorations, etc.
How we spend our holidays depends a lot on what our forebears used to do.
That's how it happens, you see. Someone starts something, and generations later, we'll still be doing it because it's tradition. Like kids wearing green on St. Patrick's Day, without knowing why (knowing only that if they don't, they get pinched, and that's reason enough).
A lot of our holiday customs go way, way back. Kissing under the mistletoe? Dates back to the Druids. Others are fairly new, but even if they're less than a century old, they might as well be iron clad.
Tradition. What does New Year's have to do with football, or the Tournament of Roses parade? Why big balloons in the Thanksgiving parade but no other time of the year?
I'm reminded of an episode of Blackadder, the first season. The Feast of St. Leonard's Day. Bearded women and eunuchs. Why? Tradition, and if anyone dared suggest they hold the revelry without the eunuchs, there'd be hell to pay. Once something becomes established as a bona fide tradition, whoever dares question it or suggest something different will be fighting a losing battle.
Like with the food, some of these traditions have a logical reason. Evergreens at Christmastime, autumn leaves at Thanksgiving, because our ancestors had to look to Nature to provide the decorations, and that's what was available. Ditto the bunnies and lilies for Easter.
Others might have a more commercial aspect, and I know of plenty of people who believe that Valentine's Day was established entirely at the will of the Hallmark corporation, with support from the jewelers, florists, and confectioners.
Drifting a little off-topic but for the record - I maintain that it's a lowdown sneaky cheat to buy your gal an engagement ring for Christmas or Valentine's day. Ditto getting married on a holiday. No matter how you slice it, I still see it as a cheapskate dodge to get out of buying an extra prezzie. Like the poor kids born in late December, who get one package and a smiling "this is for both."
Holidays add fun and meaning (and oftentimes, a lot of stress, family squabbles, overspending, and weight gain) to our lives. They can bring the same to a fictional or gaming world, adding depth and flavor.
When creating a holiday, it's important to know the following:
I'd like to take this moment to invite our readers to write up a fictional holiday and send it to me (firstname.lastname@example.org). We'll compile them for our next issue.
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