It’s Christmas Eve. I’m sure that most of you are looking forward to opening presents in the morning, or to opening presents tonight, or possibly some of each. I know that Alayna and I will be enjoying our celebration with her family tonight. However, for the moment I want to get you thinking about the nature of holidays in your own writing: what do we tend to celebrate and why? In exploring this, I’m going to take a little bit to discuss the origins of the Christmas celebration, and then discuss some other major holidays.
As many of you probably know, Christmas is the Christian celebration of the birth of Christ. Tradition tells us that on December 25th we celebrate the incarnation of God in flesh, an incarnation that would preach forgiveness, love, and transformation before being horribly executed at the demand of his own people, and then rise again three days later, thus defeating sin and death and opening a path to God for anyone willing to repent of his/her sins and submit to God’s will. However, tradition does not tell us that Christ was actually born on December 25th. In fact, it seems most likely that Christ was actually born some time in the spring, probably some time in early to mid-April, nearer to the Easter celebration than the Christmas celebration. So, why do we celebrate Christmas in December?
The December celebration of Christmas goes back at least to the 2nd Century CE (at which time it was apparently a common celebration, so it probably dates to several decades before this) though it was not universally celebrated on December 25th, but it was almost always celebrated in late December. There are several possible explanations for this, but one of the most likely seems to be that the celebration of Christ’s birth was intentionally set to be a Christian replacement for the pagan celebrations surrounding the Winter Solstice on December 21st or 22nd (a time when rituals to the gods were performed in many of the indigenous European religions). The original intent may have been to draw pagan worshipers away from their own celebrations to hear the message of Christ, but it seems more likely that the intent was to give coverts to Christianity a new celebration to replace their old pagan traditions.
Over the centuries the celebration of Christmas has been more and less ritualized, depending on the place and time, and there have been several points (including the modern era) in which it has lost most of its spiritual significance. It is quite likely that fewer people will be celebrating the birth of Christ tomorrow as will be celebrating the coming of a fat man in red pajamas with magical Caribou. The morphing of this celebration has a great many reasons, not least of which is the growing apathy towards Christian belief in North America and Europe, and the celebrations transition to societies that have no little or no historical Christian traditions (such as China or Japan). It has largely become a day on which we put up trees (real or fake) decorate them with flashing or colored lights, and spend (often too much) money on gifts for friends and family.
Similarly, the Christian celebration of Easter is a mix of traditions. The name itself is strikingly similar to the name of the goddess Ishtar, who was a fertility goddess (rabbits and eggs anyone?), but it is also broadly known as the celebration of Christ’s resurrection. Hanukkah has a similar origin, being the celebration of God’s preservation of his people through the Maccabean Revolt in 167 BCE. In fact, a great many holidays have a religious significance, even if it has been forgotten.
Similarly, many holidays have a national significance. For instance, the 4th of July is the day on which American’s celebrate their independence from Britain, and many other former colonies have similar national celebrations. In fact, it is not uncommon for governments to organize holidays to commemorate important or meaningful events in their national history, or to remember important national figures (such as Presidents Day or Martin Luther King Jr. Day). However, quite often it seems that religious holidays are more broadly observed, have more staying power, and are overall more significant than nationalistic holidays.
Lastly, there are some holidays that people simply like to celebrate and remember, such as Star Wars Day, National Sock Day, etc. These holidays are more often limited to a select group of people who have a significant interest in their celebration, but some (such as Mother’s Day, and Father’s Day) gain a broader significance because they celebrate something common to everyone.
In our writing, and especially in our background writing, it is important to keep these concepts in mind. When you are developing a culture, consider their religious beliefs: what religious holidays or festivals might be observed in this culture? Similarly, consider their national history: is the nation a former colony that gained independence? Might they have a famous battle, significant event (perhaps a powerful magician once spared the nation from a disaster), or important person to remember? Lastly, consider their national character: what kinds of things do they enjoy? Obsess over? Might they celebrate the annual harvest? Or perhaps they are a culture that makes much of its money from the sea, perhaps they would celebrate the first catch of every year? Do they celebrate their parents? Or perhaps their children? Or perhaps they celebrate their ancestors? Is there a particular pastime that is worthy of special celebration?
All of these are worthy questions when we start thinking about what kinds of holidays the cultures in our own worlds might develop. And as I pointed out in my last post, while few people will likely miss them if they aren’t in your story, the inclusion of significant holidays gives your story and your world a level of depth that is otherwise unavailable.