Creating Holidays and Traditions

From the moment we are born, our families, friends and nations immerse us in a world of tradition and holiday celebrations. Whether it’s a christening or jumping over a broom at your wedding, there are little things that we all do throughout our year that we often don’t even think about being different or strange to people in other parts of the world.

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For example: every year, my grandfather would buy my grandmother a piece of jewelry for Christmas. I don’t know how it started, because it was before I was even born, but every year, he would hide the little jewelry box somewhere in their overly-decorated Christmas tree. When the family gathered, and all of us kids had opened our gifts, my grandmother would have to go to the tree and find her present. This later gave rise to grandma and grandpa placing a card for each of us in the tree with our present in it – as my grandparents got older, and none of us kids had had children of our own yet, it was much easier for them to give cash or gift cards. But do you see how a sweet gesture from my grandparents ended up turning into a family tradition?

The same can be said for holidays that are celebrated in one part of the world, but not another. Nearly all holidays celebrated throughout the year are the result of usually one of two things: an acknowledgement of the season, or religious/mimickery.

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Many people around the world dress up as many variations of Santa Claus and Krampus – and often for different reasons, and by different names!

When I asked my friends and family what their favorite holiday traditions from around the world are, my cousin and member of the US Navy said, “Shab-e Yalda, I think is among my favorites. It’s celebrated by Persians (mainly Iran) on Winter Solstice.”

The Shab-e Yalda or Yalda Night is celebrated as the longest night of the year. Friends and family gather together, sharing in a feast of nuts and fruits, drinking and reading poetry (especially Hafez). But let’s look a little more closely at this tradition. Even if you don’t know anything about Iran or Shab-e Yalda, you can look at context clues.

Centuries ago, during this time of year, food would have been scarce. Crops would not have grown for quite some time, but certain nuts would have been available. It was not uncommon for families and friends in very, very ancient days, to live together during the winter months, and then separate when spring came. Many hands make light work, and there was always much work to be done in winter – aka: survival season. Wood would need chopped to keep the fire going for heat. And if someone fell ill, they had a higher chance of getting well if someone was there to care for them, instead of being alone. Preserves would have been made and canned (or covered in clay pots) much earlier in the year, and since vegetables aren’t exactly readily available, you will find more dishes this time of year that call for dried fruits and preserves because it’s what was available. Therefore, the act of gathering with family and friends this time of year, stems from our instinctual need to be close to the ones we love and care for when the weather turns cold.

Recognizing the longest night of the year has also been observed in cultures from around the world. You will find in many that it isn’t so much acknowledgement of the calendar day as it is the spirits or Gods that were believed to control such things. “Gifts were given” or rather, sacrifices made so that the sun would return once more, and bring with it crops and the guarantee of another year alive.

So, why is knowing all of this important for creating your own holidays and traditions when you are world building? Simple: it needs to make sense. Towns or people who live on the coasts and by water-ways would have very different traditions and holidays than those who live in a desert. Weather and season will play a large role in deciding when and how your people will celebrate. And it can even be something small and simple, like the Ukrainians who put a spider web of some sorts in their trees for good luck. This was based solely on a fable, and your made-up traditions can reflect the same. You don’t necessarily need to have a long winded explanation, but a sentence or two can go a long way in helping to entrench your reader even deeper in the culture and world you have created.

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There are traditions and holidays celebrated almost every day in one country or another across our globe. Remember this when inventing your own – your entire world does not need to celebrate all of the same traditions. And don’t be afraid to look to other cultures that you are not familiar with in order to draw inspiration. Look to the religion of your world and the seasons in which your scene takes place to create celebrations that makes sense. And never, ever be afraid to invent a singular tradition that might only be celebrated by a single family – like Mrs. Weasley making a sweater for each of her children every Christmas. When Harry received his first sweater from her, it wasn’t just the fact that it was his first Christmas present that warmed his heart. It was because she considered him one of her children, and was the first time Harry could feel like he had a real family. Small gestures such as these can add a richness and depth to your story that cannot be achieved through dialogue and prose alone.

If you have created a tradition, celebration or holiday for one of your own worlds, I would love to hear about it! I’ll go first: in Chartile, it is tradition for the elves to cremate their dead. This comes from the Chartilian Creation Myth. It is said that the elves were born from the trees, trees created by the tears of the Phoenix when it flew too close to the earth and burned the entire forest the Creator had made. It was so saddened, it cried, and its tears became the seeds of the Belirian trees, from which the elves are said to have come from. By burning their dead, it is a symbol of returning to the earth by fire and acknowledging the circle of life.

Tweet me or leave a comment here on my web page! I’d love to hear some of your traditions!