Welcome back world building buddies!
I wanted to take a break from some of the dryer parts of world building, and talk about something we’ve touched on lightly, but haven’t had the chance to delve into.
Holidays. In something of an uncanny coincidence, it was a public holiday here in Australia this Monday. Labour day in fact. I spent the day doing some work and playing a little Necromunda with friends, (so it was basically a normal day of the week for me), but as we’ve discussed briefly before when we were talking about myths, how we celebrate holidays is often very culturally significant.
We often tie the idea of holidays with festivals and celebrations of religious significance. But holidays are also created by political institutions, and other cultural institutions too. Labour day is a perfect example of this.
A holiday of political significance
Labour Day in Australia was created to commemorate the struggles and victory of the Australian Labour movement. Basically, on April 21st 1856, fighting as part of the eight-hour-day movement, a bunch of Stonemasons and building workers in Melbourne marched on Parilament house there and demanded an eight-hour working day. Their protest was successful and they were the first group of organised workers in the world to achieve an 8 hour working day. (Thanks for that dudes!)
As a result, all the states and territories in Australia celebrate Labour day. But not all on the same day. And none of us in April. Here in WA we celebrate it on the 5th. In Victoria, the state where this historic protest actually happened, they’ll celebrate it on Monday next week. But in New South Wales and South Australia, it’s the first Monday in October. Go figure.
Labour day is pretty important, but we don’t really do anything special to commemorate it anymore. It isn’t like say, Christmas, where even as a fairly agnostic individual, I still give gifts to my family and friends and meet up with them over the day.
What’s in a holiday?
Our friendly dictionary defines it as; a day of festivity or recreation when no work is done.
Which is pretty broad. Just how we like it for world building, right?
So let’s investigate some holidays, and how they’re celebrated a bit more, and see what exactly they can bring to a narrative.
Public Holidays/Bank Holidays
Since we’ve already given the example of Labour day, we might as well start off with this class of holidays.
Again, we’ll get a nice clean definition from the dictionary for context; Public holidays or bank holidays are a day that’s nationally recognised, where most businesses are closed. Generally speaking, a public holiday is established by law, and it usually has a form of historical, cultural, or national significance. Sometimes all three.
Holidays like these include the 4th of July (Independence Day) in the USA, Waitangi Day in New Zealand, or Revolution Day in Mexico.
Incorporating holiday’s like this into your world can provide you with plenty of springboards to develop both plot and characters. A proud soldier in the royal guard may have a different opinion about a holiday celebrating the ruling regent’s birthday, than a poor commoner. Or how might citizens on a satellite colony in space feel about celebrating the national holiday of a distant planet? State and National holidays are a great way to show a reader a glimpse into the class-structures of your society, without being a political info-dump.
We’ve touched on religious holidays a little when we talked about myths, and I also drew on them heavily for my one-shots at the end of last year. But that’s a pretty silly example of how you can use religious holidays and festivals in a narrative c;
Culturally, we humans have a rich tradition of celebrating holidays and holding festivals with religious significance. Ramadan, Easter, Diwali… it’s a pretty long list. Religious holidays are tied up with faith, and the celebration of aspects of that faith.
Holidays with religious significance can be especially easy to insert into your world, especially if you’re working with a clearly defined religious system where God’s preside over specific portfolios like the seasons, or the moon.
Like public holidays, they can also be a clever and subtle way to expose the fractures in your society, or illustrate it’s unity.
Those days that aren’t really ‘holidays’ but we still observe
Powerful cultural institutions, like the United Nations for example, declare days important all the time. The UN Calendar is full of dates of importance they want people to observe, International Women’s Day is one example. Earth Day is another.
And who could forget holidays like Halloween or Valentine’s day, St. Patrick’s day or in my own country, the insufferably gaudy Melbourne Cup. (The race that stops the nation where everyone wears stupid hats and if you do bet you probably just end up losing $2 in the office raffle.)
Birthdays and anniversaries are actually another example of these sorts of celebratory and commemorative holidays. Day’s with some social significance, but where you’re still expected to work.
I personally think these sort of holidays, and what you do with them, can be some of the most interesting aspects of building your world, it presents an opportunity to clearly paint the habits of your characters, how they react to these ‘unofficial’ holidays could offer a lot of insight into how they feel about traditions, as well as how they feel about others and themselves.
Bringing it all together for your world
There’s a lot to draw on for a narrative within the structure of holidays. They offer us the chance to teach our reader about cultures, institutions, class-systems, character development and the individual in a neat, relatable way.
Like usual, I thought we’d look at some examples from the world of fiction to see the ways we can tell our audience different things about our story using a holiday as a tool.
I want to start with the show Altered Carbon, because I enjoyed their cultural fusion within the context of their story line. (If you haven’t yet seen the show, I won’t spoiler anything juicy for you!)
Thanks to alien technology and human innovation, the life span of characters in the world of Altered Carbon is extended far beyond a normal human life. As a result, holidays like Halloween, Día de Muertos and Thanksgiving have all been combined together into one celebration of life, and family, ancestors and religion. It’s something that makes perfect sense alongside the concept of humans living for thousands of years and spreading across the galaxy, and watching how the characters react to the celebrations gives us a lot of insight into their personal story arc. It also helps us, as the viewer, begin to contextualize just how old society is supposed to be in Altered Carbon, helpfully filling in the gaps about humanity’s history without having to bludgeon us over the head with it.
Another brilliant use of holiday’s to explain the particulars of a culture, as well as helping to build tension in a plot, is Durin’s Day, in The Hobbit. A rare event noted by the Dwarves, Durin’s Day happened when both the sun and moon could be seen together in the sky.
The secret to Thorin’s map, the Moon-letters, predicted that as the last light of the sun fell on Durin’s Day, the secret door to the Lonely Mountain would be revealed.
The inclusion of this day in the story allows for not only an obstacle to be overcome by the protagonists, but also an insight into the culture of the Dwarves through the inclusion of the Moon-letters. Ordinary runes that the Dwarves would write in such a way they could only be seen by the light of the moon. The great lengths the Dwarves went to in order to conceal the secret door. Making the runes only visible by the light of the moon on Durin’s Day, helps paint a picture of an isolated, secretive and defensive people, while at the same time showing them to be incredibly skilled and innovative.
However you decide to incorporate holiday’s into your world, don’t forget about them! They can provide you with all sorts of opportunities to showcase the depth and detail of your creations, without coming across like a history or theology textbook!
Until next time, happy world building my dudes!