Holiday Traditions and Festivities
in Fantastic Literature

Although every culture observes and celebrates various holiday events, at times fantasy writers neglect this area of cultural development. Yet when developed well, fantastic holidays can communicate much about the values and belief systems of the worlds in which they exist.

Beyond that, the observation of a holiday may have significance to the story itself. If you read some of the peripheral material Tolkien wrote on Middle Earth, you’ll find it has a rich and varied holiday tradition. Yet we see few of those holidays in the books themselves–he wisely elected to describe only those that had direct impact in the tales he told. One of the more prominent holidays he references in The Hobbit is Durin’s Day, which occurred when the sun and the moon both appeared in the sky on the first day of the dwarvish new year. Those of you who have read The Hobbit will know the significance of Durin’s Day held in the adventure of Bilbo and the dwarves.

In a similar fashion, ND Wilson used the celebratory custom of the christening feast to usher in a change that altered the course of his story and the ultimate fate of his characters. This feast resulted in a long-lost father returning home and a son receiving a name that would prove to be his strength. The celebration marked a turning point in Dandelion Fire.

And who could forget the arrival of Father Christmas in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe? Readers’ hearts rejoice with the Pevensies at this first sign of the Witch’s spell weakening. We share their anticipation as they receive gifts which will enable them to make a stand as the book reaches its climax.

All these authors moved beyond simply revealing something about the culture of their worlds in their portrayal of holidays. They used them to propel their stories forward in meaningful ways. And those of us who write should seek to do likewise, not inventing holidays for sake of doing something different, but rather creating festive occasions that will give insight into the people of our worlds, move our plots forward, and contribute to the journeys of our characters.

Sometimes this will mean developing a complex schedule of feasts and celebrations, other times the story may require few holidays or none at all. As always, it’s about story, and choosing the elements that will strengthen the tale you have to tell.

Have you found any particularly meaningful holidays in the pages of fantasy literature?

Up Wednesday will be a discussion of the sources from which holidays generally spring, which I hope will spark some inspiration.

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6 Responses to Holiday Traditions and Festivities
in Fantastic Literature

  1. Maria Tatham says:

    Your words take a writer to the right place, Sarah! Our feasts/festivals should be integral to the story, which is the important thing. Bilbo’s wonderful birthday celebration kicks off LotR, beginning the tale’s move away from the Shire into the larger world, where a crucial battle will be fought and won.

    I think it’s great that it’s Christmas that STARTS the end of the reign of the White Witch, just as the Lord’s birth began the end of the reign of the prince of this world.

    Moving away from these giants of fantasy fiction, to a simple twerp: In my book, an annual celebration in honor of a fallen king sparks a quest for the true meaning of his life.

    • Sarah Sawyer says:

      Thanks, Maria! Bilbo’s birthday feast gives such great insight into the people of Hobbiton as well as providing the transition you mentioned from the quiet world of the Shire to the wilder regions of Middle Earth. Everything works together to further the story, at least in my opinion.

      Good point about the parallels between Christmas in Narnia and in our world. It’s a day worthy of celebration indeed.

      And it sounds like you’ve invented an interesting and meaningful celebration for your own world–thanks for sharing. 🙂

  2. TheQuietPen says:

    I was just thinking about fantasy worlds and holidays. You make some good points with the Tolkien, ND Wilson, and Narnia references. I would at that the very concept of celebrating an “Eleventy-First Birthday” really adds a kick start to Lord of the Rings.

    • Sarah Sawyer says:

      You’ve offered the second vote for the significance of Bilbo’s Eleventy-First birthday, and I heartily concur with you and Maria. With that one celebration, we learn so much about the history and culture of hobbits, the events that have transpired in the years since Bilbo’s adventure with the dwarves, and the nature of Frodo, our new protagonist…not to mention that we gain more insight into the dark nature of the Ring. Tolkien certainly knew how use holidays and festivities in his books to the fullest.

  3. Sienna North says:

    Your examples really capture the spirit and purpose of holidays in fantasy, Sarah. It’s true that many great works seamlessly incorporate such celebrations into the very fabric of the story itself. It’s amazing to read such a work and then observe the holidays in it only when we look back on the story.

    Holidays are absolutely perfect for showing (rather than telling) a culture without massive amounts of time devoted to detailed description. Plus, they come in very handy for end-of-the-world deadlines in which the hero must retrieve the sword of King Arthur before the winter solstice (in seven days) or some other such adventure. I definitely agree that holidays can play a very key role in fantasy.

    • Sarah Sawyer says:

      Thanks, Sienna! Lewis and Tolkien, of course, are classic authors for good reason, and ND Wilson’s works have rich layers that I expect will help them stand the test of time.

      I think you’re right that in a great book, every story element weaves together so well that we can only analyze the separate pieces afterward when we’re not held in thrall by the story itself.

      And great point about end-of-the-world deadlines and the increase of story tension that can be brought by holidays. They can provide an excellent now or never demarcation point in the storyline.

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