Okay, so my last two posts have been about religion. How about a trinity of religion posts? Okay, I’m sorry. No puns. Puns are heresy. Okay, I got that out of the way.
I want to talk about holidays. We just got done with Easter this year, and there are so many different ways people celebrate it. At least, there are different meanings for it.
For some, it’s the highlight of their year, the great holy day of the cosmic resurrection cycle of Christianity. For others, it’s the one day a year they go to church, the holy day that they remind themselves of their religion. For even others, it’s a day to go hunt for plastic eggs filled with candy (or in some more adult versions, with miniature whiskey bottles). But wait, there’s more! For some, it’s not Easter at all, but Pesach, Passover, the reminder of when the Israelites were freed from slavery to Egypt. For pagans, it’s the time of year when they mark the spring equinox. And then there are those who don’t care, who don’t celebrate holidays because they’re not religious. There are also those who don’t celebrate it because their religion forbids holidays.
Wait, that’s seven groups of people, seven different ways to view a holiday. This is going to be a long one.
1. Mythic Remembrance
Now, before you think I’m insulting religion, I’m not using the world “mythic” in a derogatory sense. In fact, I think that not only does all religion have a mythic aspect, but non-religion does too. Why else would Browncoats hold so dearly to the freedom ideals of Firefly, or Trekkies make Star Trek a major part of their life? Myth is simply the medium of stories that bring us deeper meaning. For some, holidays are not so much about historical remembrance or annual cookouts, but about the mythic remembrance of their god. As far as many Christians are concerned, Easter is not just about a day when a man was crucified, but about the metaphysical point in all time when their deity passed the threshold and returned, fulfilling the hero’s journey and giving them the chance to live.
Now, I’ll admit, having grown up a Christian, I don’t know about how other religions view holidays like this, but I’m sure that they exist, where the holiday is just that, a holy day. It’s a point in space time where Divinity touches the Earth, where our reality is subsumed by the Greater Reality. If you’re going to create a religion for a fantasy world, or even for a science fiction setting, it’s important to remember that this is how many holidays either begin or end up. Liturgies and ritual tend to be the most important part of this kind of holiday, and they can be anything from sedate and stern to celebratory and ecstatic.
2. Historical Remembrance
While the celebration of this kind of holiday can be similar to the mythic remembrance days, it’s different in that it’s to celebrate a historical event, and although Divinity might play a part, it’s more about what happened rather than what happens. Passover, when the Israelites left Egypt, Hanukkah, when the Temple was rededicated, and American Independence Day, when the Declaration of Independence was signed, all have one thing in common, they celebrate a historical event. Whereas the mythic remembrance days focus on something that is, in the perspective of the believers, continually happening, the historical remembrance days focus on something that happened, although it still affects them today.
These two perspectives may often merge in the same day. They may even be perspectives held by the same person. Since they’re not mutually exclusive, it would be fairly easy to create holidays that have both of them in this vein, and simply have different groups give different emphases, much like certain groups in America seem to hold up July 4 as a mythic day as much as they do a historical day.
3. Annual Cycle
This one is a bit different from the other two in that it’s not always a distinctly religious holiday. Take New Year’s Eve, for example. Annual cycle holidays started out as ways to maintain the seasons and give meaning to the year, and for many, that’s still what they do. In Wicca, at least, they have the high days of the year that show the annual death and rebirth of the Horned God and the transition of the Triple Goddess from maiden, to mother, to crone. The Jewish Rosh Hashanah is as much an annual cycle day as much as it is both a historical remembrance and mythic remembrance day.
Annual cycle days are, in fact, often a subset of mythic remembrance days. Bringing the mythic cycle into the yearly calendar makes it real, and when you have a religion, a real, living religion, there is going to be myth whether you know it or not. Why else would people take the concept of New Year’s Resolutions seriously enough to even try them? Why wait for them? If you’re creating a religion for you world, remember that they need to have some way to count the years and a framework for their lives. The yearly cycle, or even the monthly cycle, is perfect for that.
4. The Annual Reminder of Religion
Of course, there are some who will not be as devout in their religion as others, perhaps going to their place of worship only for the high holy days. This happens in the real world, and it will happen in any credible fictional world. They might even have a perfectly valid reason for this. It may be, though, that the religion is more of a cultural thing. It’s expected to listen to the priests, to celebrate the holidays. They don’t really have anything against it, but it just doesn’t have that much ritual oversight in the normal, everyday aspect of their lives. When you create a religion for your world, make sure that there are segments of the population who simply are not as…overt…in their piety.
5. Food and Fun
Not all holidays are going to be religious, and sometimes, they’re just going to be about nothing more than having fun. Sure, Mardi Gras started out as a holiday to kick off Lent, basically do all the things you’re not supposed to do before you spend forty days not doing them. Now, it’s really not much more than an excuse for drunken debauchery. Of course, I’m not sure if ever was much more than that, but whatever.
Holiday celebration that is simply about having a good time is pretty normal, and for many, it’s the same holidays that the überreligious people are celebrating. For others, they just make up their own. Take Pi Day for example. March 14, also written as 3/14 in the U.S. is a day to celebrate math, the ratio of area over circumference, and eat pie. That’s really all it is. It’s pretty entrenched in geek culture, at least, and it seems to be growing.
These holidays seem to happen more when there isn’t really a strong religious or mythic undercurrent to a culture. People just need to celebrate, to hold something up as important and do something to remember it, like eat pie or, well, talk like a pirate. Sure, it’s silly, but the fact that it’s grown naturally shows it’s an important part of culture.
6. Secular Non-Holiday
Now, not everyone wants to celebrate a holiday. When you’re not religious, or when you’re not a part of the religion celebrating the holiday, you just treat the day like a normal day. It might actually get in your way, how everyone treats it differently. Businesses are closed on Easter, and those who are simply not religious might want to get something done that day, but they can’t because, well, the people running those businesses are off celebrating. This isn’t as much of an issue in homogenized cultures, but in areas where there’s culture clash, you have people who just want the holiday to be a normal day. That’s not to say that people won’t have holidays, but rather that they’ll have different holidays.
7. Religious Non-Holiday
Of course, there are always those who simply don’t have holidays. Some religions, like the Jehovah’s Witnesses, believe that holidays are idolatry. While they do have a very strong religion that guides them, their ascetic nature keeps them from taking part in what the culture around them, or the culture they left, considers holy days.
Now that you’ve got an image of the different ways that culture can view holidays, what kind of special celebrations and rituals are you going to come up with for your world’s religion? There are different rituals from all around the world and all through time to choose from, and any mix of them would work in a fantasy world.