The True Meaning of X-mas

Now that I’m back to blogging after an unexpectedly long hiatus over the new year, I wanted to discuss some tricks for using holidays in SF&F fiction. I’m talking about invented holidays, or far-future evolutions of present-day festivities. A festival, celebration, or fast can add an extra bit of flavor to a story while simultaneously fleshing out your setting and providing greater insight into the people who inhabit this world.

But for a few folks like me, this can be hard to pull off without feeling too forced, generic, or derivative. So I’ve had to come up with some techniques for creating holidays that fit organically into both the setting and the story.

Excerpt from Josiah King's The Examination and Tryal of Father Christmas (1686). Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, D.C.

Excerpt from Josiah King’s The Examination and Tryal of Father Christmas (1686). Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, D.C.

The first challenge is to understand the roots of your own culture’s celebrations, which can be difficult for those of us in the West where so many of our holidays have been bowdlerized. Christmas is the classic example. Everyone knows it was originally a pagan winter solstice festival that was co-opted by the early Christians. But what were the pagans actually celebrating? And why did the Christians feel the need to co-opt it rather than abolish it? In brief: The winter solstice marks the point where the days stop getting shorter and start getting longer, heralding spring’s approach. This is both symbolically affecting (light triumphing over darkness) but also of the deepest material importance to an agricultural society. As for why the Christians co-opted it, well holding a multi-day party in the depths of winter was simply too popular to abolish. In fact, it was so popular that the solstice holiday at times bloated into a multi-week affair, prompting Roman Emperors to try to rein in the length of the holiday, with mixed success.

There’s obviously more layers to go through, such as the origin of all the various Christmas symbols and rituals that have built up over the years, but the important thing is to get to the founding origins of our various holiday traditions. This introspection is necessary before looking at the practices of other cultures, because it teaches you to look beneath the surface of a public spectacle and get a sense of the social and material forces driving it.

Once you’ve got a decent handle on what makes your culture’s holiday traditions tick, then you can look elsewhere to get a feel for the holiday rhythm in other parts of the world and at other times in history. It can be quite interesting to learn all the myriad ways in which people mark holidays and the reasons behind those traditions. Every culture is unique, with its own perspectives on how to celebrate or fast or mourn. Nonetheless, there are some fairly common tropes, a few of which are listed below.

  • Solar holidays: Celebrations of equinoxes and solstices, and occasionally eclipses, are common holidays that derive from ancient subsistence cultures, for whom the changing of the seasons was a matter of vital importance when it came to planting crops or moving to a new hunting ground. Probably the most common type of holiday.
  • Harvest festivals: These festivals derive specifically from agricultural societies, marking the end of the harvest when there was suddenly plenty of food and nothing to do.
  • Leap Days: Among societies with strong record-keeping traditions, these holidays mark the “extra” days necessary for an artificial calendar to keep pace with the solar year. Depending on the calendar, this could range from a single day to an entire month.
  • “Upside Down Day”: Another common holiday is one in which the traditional social order is allowed to upend for a day, during which elites open themselves up for public mockery and lowly peasants are made kings with bright paper crowns. This type of holiday is particularly resonant in societies which typically have a very rigid social hierarchy.

You may have noticed how many of these holidays have deep roots in the material and social needs of the community. When crafting your own holiday, consider what needs it would meet in your own setting. In the contemporary U.S., with its broad free speech laws, there’s no real demand for an Upside Down Day–we don’t need to be given an excuse to mock our elites. Likewise, what use is a winter solstice holiday to people on a space station or creatures deep underground?

It’s true that people can continue holiday traditions long after their material relevance has diminished or vanished, but in the process the holiday itself changes. Consider Christmas again. The winter solstice’s relevance to agriculture is essentially meaningless to the urbanized majority of the Western world, and so the celebration takes on a different meaning.

Once you have an understanding of the social and material needs that holidays will (and won’t) fill for your fictional society, you can finally pull one together. I recommend mixing and matching rituals and practices from multiple sources–filtered through your fictional culture, of course–in order to create a truly unique holiday for your setting.

Was this technique helpful? Would you approach things differently? Do you have an invented holiday you want to share? Please, feel free to comment below.

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