Today, for me, marks the winter solstice. (Officially, it happens just before 5AM tomorrow morning, going by UTC time. I’m in the US Eastern Time Zone, which is 5 hours behind that, so it’s a few minutes before midnight locally.) As the days grow shorter and the year runs out, thoughts naturally turn towards the holidays, of which there are so many right now. Christmas, of course, is only a few days away. Hanukkah isn’t too far behind us. New Year’s Day is on the horizon, bringing 2015 to a close. And that’s not counting the not-so-holy holidays this time of year, like Pearl Harbor Day (and the birthday of one of my uncles) back on the 7th or Boxing Day (and the birthday of a different uncle) on the 26th.
Indeed, in our modern, Western calendar, every month is chock full of holidays. (Except August, much to my brother’s delight; it’s totally bare, so his birthday is all by itself.) But that’s one culture, in one time, and nothing says that everybody has the same holidays. It’s common knowledge that Jews and Muslims don’t celebrate Christmas, for example, while Thanksgiving is an American tradition with no counterpart across the Atlantic. Many countries celebrate Independence Day, but only the USA has it on the Fourth of July.
And what about fictional cultures? What holidays do they have? Tolkien’s hobbits were good English folk, and they essentially used our calendar and our holidays, just with the Christianity filed off. That’s good enough for a lot of stories, but we might want to go deeper. To do that, we need to understand the origins of holidays.
For every season
For a “traditional” pre-industrial society, whether agrarian or hunter-gatherer, life is sustained directly by the earth itself. Food comes from nature, and it is the single most important facet of life. And food follows the seasons, whether the growing seasons of plants or the mating or hibernating or migrating seasons of animals. Life, living, is governed by the calendar. That’s where most of our traditional holidays come from. As it turns out, they might have different names, but almost every culture has a similar set.
Imagine an analog clock face. Now, imagine that this represents the year. Summer, the season with the highest temperatures, can go at the top, with the solstice at the 12 o’clock position. Winter, conversely, will be the low point: 6 o’clock. The spring and autumn equinoxes then fit in at 9 and 3, respectively. And time passes like this in its eternal cycles. Simple, right? Each of those four points I identified are important markers in the year that are recognized by most cultures. (Tropical cultures are a bit of an exception, since they don’t have the most obvious distinction of the seasons, the changing length of the night. But they can still tell the seasons by patterns in rainfall, winds, and the natural behavior of plants and animals.)
For a lot of places in the temperate zones, the spring (vernal) equinox marks the point in the year when temperatures are warm enough to make planting viable. In the same way, the autumnal equinox is a good sign that cold weather is moving in soon, and it’s time to start thinking about harvests and preparing for winter. Since temperate locales tend to show a big difference between hot and cold seasons, this is a very important part of the calendar. Freezing weather kills many plants, including most of those a pre-industrial society depends on for food. Planting too early and harvesting too late are both very real dangers that can, at the worst, lead to widespread famine. (Look up the Year Without a Summer for a fairly recent example of this.)
In a similar vein, the solstices are milestones in the calendar. Among older cultures, the winter solstice has been historically more important, whether as a time to look forward to the spring ahead or to celebrate the passing year. Summer, in temperate regions, is a relative time of plenty already, so it gets less attention. Besides, no one who lives a pastoral life looks forward to the lean times of winter.
So, for many cultures that haven’t reached the Industrial Age (where advances in technology allow food yields to increase faster than the population), these four times are some of the most likely suspects for holidays. And we can add to them four more: the midpoints between each pair. On our imaginary clock, those are at 1:30, 4:30, 7:30, and 10:30; on the calendar, they’re around the beginning of February, May, August, and November. Indeed, some calendars—the Celtic calendar is one example—use those to determine the seasons, while our familiar equinoxes and solstices become their midpoints.
Altogether, then, we have eight days that make obvious sense for agrarian holidays. On our calendar, roughly, they are: February 1, March 20, May 1, June 21, August 1, September 23, November 1, and December 21. And true enough, the Western world has seasons for just about all of them:
Early February: Groundhog Day is a modern spectacle that hearkens back to actual folk wisdom regarding the coming of spring. The Christian feast day of Candlemas probably replaced many of those “pagan” traditions. And America’s bloodsport of choice has its biggest day around this time, too: the Super Bowl.
Late March: Essentially everybody celebrates the first of spring. (If you’re a Celt, then that was in the last section, as Imbolc. Otherwise, it’s probably right here.) Most of the European rituals were subsumed into Easter, but the pagan origins are still evident. Look elsewhere in the world, though, and you’ll find planting holidays and end-of-winter feasts aplenty.
Early May: By the middle of spring, lots of flowers are blooming, and that’s the basic idea around these holidays. Nowadays, May Day celebrates workers in industrialized countries, but the floral connection still exists. The US has never really been a big May Day place, so Mother’s Day pops up here. It’s not a traditional festival-type holiday, though, so we’ll get to it later. The Celts, by the way, started counting summer here, calling it Beltane.
Late June: Again, we don’t really have a lot going on this time of year, but that wasn’t always the case. Midsummer was celebrated by plenty of cultures, and it’s a very big thing in northern Europe to this day. Christianity appropriated it as St. John’s Day, but find somebody in America who knows that. Of course, we have the nearby Fourth of July, so it’s understandable. Anyway, midsummer holidays tend to celebrate the long days, maybe even with bonfires that try to further drive back the night.
Early August: By August, summer is starting to run out, and fall is approaching. The earliest harvests start around this time, and the traditional Anglo-Saxon calendar marks August 1 as a “first harvest” festival for wheat crops, called Lammas (Lughnasa by the Celts). The timing doesn’t work everywhere, nor does it work for every crop, so not everybody has a harvest holiday around here, although they’ll have one somewhere.
Late September: Traditional harvest festivals tend to fall around the first of autumn. In other words, right here. The Harvest Moon is the full moon closest to the equinox, and its light can be seen as a blessing to those working the fields, giving them a little extra to see by. Harvest, of course, is a time of hard work, but also of feasting. Before modern food storage techniques, people had to eat what they could, lest it go to waste.
Early November: Celts have Samhain, Christians have All Saints’ Day, and children have Halloween. These are all connected, as the Church took over the pagan festival, then the people took over the holy feast. Some other cultures have something here, but this one isn’t that big a time to celebrate, as it means that winter is coming. Maybe if you’re a Stark…
Late December: In modern times, we’d see it as ending the year with a bang. For a lot of people (not just Christians, for that matter), Christmas is the holiday. But it has its pagan origins, too: traditional Yule and Roman Saturnalia. All of them have the same general idea, though. A feast to get through the long winter nights, a time to look forward to spring, a day to reflect on the year that was and the year that soon will be, all of that fits this time of year. So does gift-giving, that most popular of Christmas traditions. What better time to give to those in need, if not the shortest day of the year?
So that’s it for the agrarian calendar. Add religion to the mix, and things get hairy. For Christianity, it’s mostly simple, as the Church subsumed the pagan holidays into its own, sometimes only by changing their names. They did add some of their own, like Ash Wednesday or the feast of the Assumption, that don’t match up to the seasons. Judaism and Islam, which keep their own calendars, have their own holidays, like Hanukkah and Ramadan, and the same would be true even for fictional religions.
Here, it’s hard to give guidelines. Religious observances that aren’t anniversaries of known events can fall anywhere in the year. They can even be movable, and not in obvious ways: calculations of the date of Easter drove centuries of Christian astronomy. And those that are annual commemorations don’t necessarily need any connection to the actual date the event happened. After all, there isn’t even Biblical evidence that Jesus was born in December. (That he was crucified in spring is pretty solidly confirmed, however.)
My best advice is to think about the religion. What days are most important? Those will likely be the ones most celebrated. Then look at the rest of the calendar. People like feasts, but they don’t want too many too soon. That gets expensive. So the next most celebrated holidays will likely be those far from other holidays. It’s not an exact science—it doesn’t explain the American August drought—but it’s a good start.
Also, if your story involves a polytheistic religion, think about the different gods and their functions. Gods of agriculture and nature are going to be more tied to the seasons. Death and winter are often linked, for obvious reasons, so a death god might have a holiday in or near winter. Spring is seen as a time of love, fire goes with summer, and I’m sure you can find other relations.
As states become more centralized, especially once industrialization comes about, the nature of holidays begins to change. Sure, the usual suspects are still there: harvest feasts, planting festivals, summer bonfires and winter gifts. But these are increasingly accompanied by a new set of holidays, and we should spend some time on them.
Many of our “secondary” holidays originally had a religious significance, largely stemming from the Catholic saints’ days. Valentine’s Day is one of these, though it also falls on the day of a Roman feast (Lupercalia) that had many of the same romantic connotations. Saint Patrick’s Day is another, but it’s also a “nationalist” holiday, with its strong Irish connection. For these, as for Christmas and Halloween, it’s a case of the secular overtaking the religious. Likewise, Thanksgiving originally had some religious overtones, but these are all but forgotten.
Other holidays are directly nationalist, and these obviously depend on the country. But they all have in common the idea of commemorating a person or group. In the US, for example, we have holidays to honor Christopher Columbus, Martin Luther King Jr., veterans (originally of World War I, but later expanded to all of them), mothers, fathers, workers, and presidents. The specifics will differ, but a fictitious country would likely have its own set of honored people. This would depend on history, societal norms, technological advancement, and the circumstances around the formation of that country, all of which are good topics for future posts.
On other planets, the seasons still work the same way. A terrestrial planet with a year like Earth’s will have a natural calendar like Earth’s. The names and dates will be changed, but the broad outline will remain the same.
We don’t even know what kind of life can arise on less-familiar worlds, but it stands to reason that they’d have similar ideas about the calendar. Of course, around a red M star, a habitable world’s year only lasts a few weeks, so things will likely break down at this extreme. At the other end of the spectrum, habitable planets around F stars might have years 3 or more times that of ours, meaning longer, more extreme seasons. More holidays would appear in a longer calendar like this, if only to break up the monotony.
Now, a society spanning multiple worlds has a conundrum. Most of the holidays, at first, would be those of the homeworld. But colonies would soon become like nations on Earth, each developing their own set of observances (for the same reasons, no less). Almost all of these would be purely local, but some would rise in prominence, as St. Patrick’s Day has done here.
However you do it, holidays add flavor to a world. They’re an important part of life. They have been for thousands of years, and they will be as long as we continue to observe them.
Most of a culture’s holidays are going to come from its roots, and each will have a story. Some are religious, others entirely dependent on the whims of the seasons. A few started out as movements for political or social change, or to honor the leaders of such. And today, every day of the year has been claimed in the name of some organization. (My own birthday of October 16, for instance, is Boss’s Day, which would be great if I had employees. It’s also World Food Day and World Anesthesia Day, because of historical anniversaries.)
As I said before, most stories won’t need this level of detail. But it can find a place in worldbuilding, and it’s always good to have the answers to the kinds of questions you never thought to ask. So, consider this a gift. And whichever holiday you happen to be celebrating over the next week or so, I hope you enjoy it.