Festivus for the Rest of Us: Building Holidays in SFF

With the end of NaNoWriMo, the coming of the Christian holiday season, and the end of fall semester and all of its grading comes one of my great creative quandaries: What can I manage to do toward my writing when I’m being pulled in so many directions?

When faced with this problem, I go back to worldbuilding. 

If you’ve read some of my other columns for Luna Station Quarterly’s blog, you know I have a weakness for worldbuilding — an abiding love of rich, lived-in worlds and the imaginative play it takes to make them happen. Give me tidbits of lore, regional cuisines, cultural idioms, and peculiar technologies, and I’ll stay in a story for the long haul. Obviously, holiday-building is a natural part of that love. 

A writer can make a holiday out of anything. Entertainments of all kinds are replete with examples of fictional holidays, from the sincere to the ridiculous, and it’s no wonder, considering the role holidays play in family and culture. Cultural holidays, when written well, can seal our understanding of a fictional world or its people, or give that understanding nuance we couldn’t have otherwise appreciated. The Christmas holiday season, with its usually inclement weather, cozy aesthetics, and in-gathering traditions, encourages me to reflect on what makes up a holiday and how to integrate these elements into my writing.

Every holiday affirms something. 

Perhaps it’s a patriotic or nationalistic event. Perhaps it’s a family-oriented occasion, or a life-stage celebration, or a memorial. But in each of these cases, something is being reiterated and reified through people’s actions. We are proud and unified; our people are the best. We mourn the loss of these family members and celebrate their legacies. We love sexytimes and want to celebrate the joys of the body! We remember the wrongs done to us on this day and commit ourselves to honoring the fallen. Even a somber holiday is about affirmation, about drawing out of a moment or the memory of a moment some principle the celebrants are supposed to value.

A photograph from a Holi celebration in India

Every holiday has an aesthetic.

Whether the holiday involves decking halls with boughs of holly or asture, formal dress and somber music, holiday observances have an aesthetic reinforced by clothing, music, art, games, entertainment, and decorations. The holiday’s aesthetic should be tied to whatever the thing the holiday affirms is and the attitude the celebrants are meant to adopt about it. A celebration of fertility is likely to include sensual, stimulating food, clothing, music, and social gatherings. You could create a fertility holiday that involves people retreating to dark rooms and tying a sock to their doorknobs to warn off passers-by, but. . . that lacks something in the way of style, no? 

Every holiday has rituals, which can be (and often are) adapted at the private level.

We may not think of all the subtle elements of our holidays as ritualistic, but they often are. Especially important are the ways in which larger rituals — say, in the case of Christmas, exchanging gifts — are adapted to suit the needs of different people. My family’s rituals on Christmas included opening all our gifts (that weren’t from Santa, obviously) on Christmas Eve so we could call my grandparents and thank them before Christmas morning. Christmas morning was given over to stocking un-stuffing, a few “Santa gifts,” and a very specific, very consistent breakfast menu that was at least as important as anything tucked under the tree. This philosophy of “Christmas Eve is for gifts” was entirely bizarre to my husband when we first married, as that was the night he went to an enormous extended family gathering, saving all his gifts for the next morning. But as I didn’t grow up with extended family nearby, my Christmas was built around my family of four, stretching the stages of the holiday out as long as possible so we could savor it and make it last.

When worldbuilding a holiday, you’d do well to think about what the “usual” way of celebrating it might be, and how different groups of people — including key characters — adapt what’s usual to their own families, histories, and contexts. 

And if all of this still feels too vast and overwhelming, you could always break out some dice and try rolling up a holiday. Then, challenge yourself to come up with the background narrative that explains why these elements fit together. 

A standard RPG dice pack can be a delightful worldbuilding resource (image via banggood.com)

Roll Your Season/Timing (roll multiple times and combine elements, if you wish) (d8)

1 – Nighttime

2 – Midday

3 – Morning

4 – Winter

5 – Spring

6 – Summer

7 – Fall

8 – Tied to a specific date 


Roll Your Affirmation (d10)

1 – Liberty / Unity

2 – Family

3 – Death / Ancestors

4 – Travel / Journeys

5 – Homecoming or Farewells

6 – Fertility

7 – Change of Season

8 – Historical Event

9 – Historical Figure

10 – Faith / Religion 


Roll Your Rituals (roll multiple times and combine elements, if you wish) (d20)

1 – A meal made of many smaller meals or snacks

2 – Distributing offerings

3 – Decorating a private or shared space

4 – The wearing of costumes or masks

5 – Fasting, followed by a feast

6 – Finding hidden gifts or trinkets

7 – Gathering objects to complete a shrine

8 – Tithing / charity

9 – Thematic music and/or dancing

10 – Public sports and contests

11 – Gambling and gaming

12 – Theater (passion plays, historical re-enactments, dramatic readings)

13 – Dating / Mating / Courtship rituals

14 – Storytelling (competitive or collaborative)

15 – Lighting / Dousing fires (symbolically or in celebration)

16 – Constructing an effigy to destroy / enshrine / mock / celebrate

17 – Parades with colorful displays and trinkets for the crowd

18 – Ritual sacrifices (of many kinds)

19 – Prayers (group, individual, etc.)

20 – Sacred objects to wear / carry / use / pass down