Blame tsuki_no_bara for this one, if you like. She asked specifically for holidays in the last rant. (Well, and so did other people).
1) Seasonal celebrations don’t have to be “universal.”
Just as with clothing descriptions and the protagonists’ inner angsty monologues, I can doze my way through most descriptions of midsummer festivals, midwinter festivals, and the rarer beginning-of-spring and beginning-of-autumn festivals. (Why fantasy writers are allergic to the word “equinox” when they’re right at home with the word “solstice” is beyond me). They’re lighting fires and having sex at midsummer, aren’t they? Why, yes they are. And they’ll talk about darkness and light at midwinter, won’t they? Why, yes they will. I skim through until I find the part where the characters say something that isn’t about rebirth, and start reading there.
Yes, yes, “universal themes of rebirth, seasons are important, most cultures do this.” Blather. Twitter. Because, see, I don’t really want to read about universal cultures. I’ll read anthropology textbooks that concentrate exclusively on cultural universals—which often turn out not to be that universal—if that’s really what I want. I want to know what the culture of this fantasy world is like. If they have their own, deeply embedded traditions of death and rebirth and darkness and light surrounding the change of seasons, that’s fine. But too often, authors just steal Wiccan celebrations, or Christmas celebrations, and present them as if they were totally new. Which they aren’t. And which these authors can’t convincingly describe as new. And which some of them even leave the names attached to. *tries to smother horrible Pillars of the World memories*
Vary it a little, please? Think about what makes your people celebrate the way they do. If you’re going to have a Mother Goddess, could she please at least have her own name, not “the Mother Goddess?” Could she have her own variation on the Inanna legend, maybe with at least a few details changed? One reason I grow bored and go away when the author starts saying, “I do this because I read about it in Joseph Campbell” or similar is because that glosses over the many small, interesting twists that different cultures put on the legend for a bland, homogenized version. Think about what would make the most sense for these people, not just Generic McGeneric in the middle of Generic Fantasyland.
Learn your own descriptive skill in these matters. If you can make the old themes convincingly your own, great. If you could exchange your scenes with any scene in a generic “Celtic” fantasy novel, perhaps it’s time for a change, hmmm?
2) People don’t have to celebrate the day they were born.
I am never, ever going to read The Fifth Ring, because a friend told me the horrible truth about it: a character apparently celebrates his birthday with a cake that has candles on it and by singing the song “Happy Birthday.”
Look. Okay? The Happy Birthday song is not some traditional ditty. It was made up by someone in our own world, and recently. It’s freaking copyrighted. It has no business sitting in a damn fantasy novel unless the author is setting the fantasy in our world after the late nineteenth century.
For that matter, people in fantasy don’t have to celebrate their birthdays. They really, really don’t. Just because they’re important to us doesn’t mean they would be important to someone in another world. (This is a lesson about many, many things that could stand to be beaten into some fantasists’ heads). Think about these things:
- Without a precise calendar, it may be hard to keep track of when someone was born. Peasants who are laboring in the fields and don’t have a consistent system of date-tracking, or don’t know mathematics very well, might give their birthdays as “in the springtime.”
- The traditions that we’re familiar with, especially expensive and extraordinary gifts, couldn’t spring up without a base of luxury to provide for them. How does a peasant afford an expensive cake, multiple expensive gifts for the child (and several times throughout the year, if the family is large), candles, to provide for several children or families who might come to celebrate the birthday, and to take time off from the labor so that all the preparations can be made? This might happen in an upper-class or middle-class family, though I would still roll my eyes at children singing “Happy Birthday” in a medieval environment. A peasant family would have a much harder time giving more than perhaps one gift, more likely than not a hand-me-down or a reuse of something already made, and a swift hug.
- Infant mortality in pre-modern times was quite, quite high. It wasn’t unusual to refrain from getting too attached to a child, because so many babies died. In such a culture, it might make more sense for people to celebrate the day that their parents decided to name them or give some other sign that they were accepted as likely to survive. That might as late as a year after they were actually born, or after the first winter.
- There are other days to celebrate, too. One could celebrate the season one was born, the month—perhaps there would be one mass celebration for all the children of a particular village—or, if the date-tracking system was more precise, the day of conception. Why does this culture have to share our opinion that life proper begins when you emerge from the womb, after all?
3) Re: Christian wedding traditions. I think we’ve had enough, thank you.
Sometimes the heroes can be walking through a fantasy landscape that seems to have its own pantheon—perhaps animistic, perhaps focused on ancestor worship, perhaps dealing with several gods who manage to escape the “good earth goddess/evil sky god” trap—and then they want to get married. Immediately, up sprouts a church for them to get married in, and a gown for the bride to wear (even if she’s worn quite different clothing based on quite different modes of dress for most of the story), and a priest to pronounce them married, and vows to say, and a kiss to seal the marriage, and a wedding reception for the happy couple to attend, and a wedding night to consummate things.
If you need me, I’ll be over here, banging my head against the wall.
I don’t know why fantasy authors will go to the trouble of designing their own religions and then chuck everything out the window for a Christian-type wedding. But it pains me. It pains me severely. I should just transport a small brick wall around with me for moments like this.
Come up with wedding traditions that fit your religion. And since so many Christian things creep in unnoticed, question every element of it that you want to include. Are they required to get married in front of an altar, with a priest or priestess standing in front of them? Why? If the gods are everywhere and everywhere is their temple, why wouldn’t a clearing in the forest be just as holy?
Is the bride required to put on different, formal clothing? Why? If she’s a warrior, and this is supposed to be one of the most honest, special moments of her life, when she is most purely herself, wouldn’t it make just as much sense for her to wear her armor?
Do the couple make vows to each other? Why? If this is a culture that takes promises very seriously, and a man’s word is his bond (or a woman’s, hers), might there not be a trial period where the couple can see if they like each other before speaking words that will bind them for the rest of their lives?
Does there have to be a wedding reception and a consummation night? Why? If this marriage is purely for political or economic reasons and no one even really cares if they have children (perhaps it’s a marriage of a youngest son and a youngest daughter under a primogeniture system, made just to settle family disputes, and their children don’t have much of a crack at the family wealth anyway), celebration and consummation might not be the order of the day. Or, if the main purpose of marriage in this culture is to rear children, then perhaps the couple isn’t really considered married until the woman conceives. That would make their first night together relatively unimportant if that didn’t happen to be the night she conceived. And, of course, that doesn’t even get into what happens if the fantasy culture allows for same-sex marriages, or group marriages.
Shake the Christian thought-process, and find other ways for people to get married.
4) If your culture doesn’t have the same fear of death that lurks in our world, then funerals should be very different.
There are already some Earth cultures where funerals are joyous occasions, either to bid the dead person farewell or to keep the survivors’ minds focused on living. People party instead of standing around sniffling solemnly and wearing a certain color. Noise and singing abound, rather than just one priest intoning a farewell. The dead, if envisioned as hanging around, might well become helpful spirits instead of angry or dangerous ghosts. Or the relationship of the dead and living might not even be considered over, with the funeral just a little bump on the road, and not all that important.
In a fantasy world with an assured afterlife and resurrection, things are going to alter from the way we have them. At least, they bloody well should. If your dead friend could come back to talk to you as a ghost, or tell you what was going to happen after you died, or spring back to life complaining of a headache after the placing of gold in the right hands, would funerals hang over peoples’ heads? Would death? The Vlad Taltos series shows an interesting attitude towards death when revivification (the magical bringing back to life of anyone who hasn’t been dead for that long and hasn’t had the brain or spinal cord damaged) becomes common. People don’t start preparing for funerals right away. Assassins are hired to kill someone and leave them in a place where their friends can find and revivify them, as a warning—or, if they kill that person permanently, that’s a warning of something more serious, such as a gang war. Preparations are made for survivors like widows before the dead, and the only big and solemn funeral that shows up in the series is for a high-ranking noble. Low-level thugs die on the street and no one gives a shit.
Or there may be different ways of disposing of the dead. Perhaps they aren’t buried. Perhaps they’re left for the birds, or burned, or mummified, or the flesh is boiled off the bones and only the bones are saved. That would make coffins completely unnecessary. It would lead to different metaphors, different customs for “visiting” the dead, and a different sense of how long they were around. (Visiting a site where a pyre had been would still be possible, but it would be different from visiting a gravestone).
Consider what works in the culture. It’s possible, sure, to have a culture where, for whatever reason, funerals work exactly like they do in ours, down to an “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust” speech. But the feeling I get from many fantasy books is that people haven’t set out to design these cultures deliberately; they just pick up modern Western traditions as the default, and don’t really question them.
5) Come up with your own holidays.
Remember how I pointed out that so many midsummer/midwinter scenes are boring in point 1? And the same with birthdays, and weddings, and funerals?
That’s because those are almost the only ones I ever see. Come on, people! You love to world-build? World-build some holidays!
This is your chance to get away from the bland, homogenized fantasy cultures, where only the most “necessary” and “universal” celebrations appear, and there’s nothing to make it unique. Fine, fine, have a midsummer holiday that involves fires and sex, and a midwinter holiday where the whole concentration is on the theme of rebirth or the birth of a savior. But come up with other things, too, why don’t you?
- Memorial days. These could be days that celebrate famous battles, the death of a hero, the founding of a city, or something similar.
- Specific religious holidays. What are some of the legends of your gods that would lead them to mark out days as special? Not all of them have to be seasonal (which is almost the only religious holiday that appears in fantasy, most often stolen from Wicca).
- Days focused on the heavens. Do people celebrate when a comet appears? At the half of the moon? At the dark or full of the moon? (And for a reason other than that the Mother Goddess told them to?) When a certain star rises? When a certain constellation is at a certain point in the sky, such as directly overhead?
- Days that are important only to certain segments of the culture. One may be a women’s holiday, the other one celebrated mostly by children.
- Initiation ceremonies. And no, they don’t have to be into religions that are once again loosely based on Wicca, either. Perhaps the character is entering a non-religious secret group, like a craft guild.
- Rites of adulthood. There are many fantasy cultures where the girl becomes a woman when she menstruates and the boy becomes a man when he kills his first enemy or prey animal, but there’s endless room for expansion here.
And next, quiet moments!