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How can I create holidays/traditions for my fictional world? I want these holidays to be believable and original, not just something inspired by a holiday we have here.

An obvious course of action seems to be to investigate the origins of our own holidays. A lot come from religion (Christmas, Easter, etc.), but what about those that don't (like Halloween)?

How can I take the history and setting of my world, and create natural, believable, and above all, original, holidays/traditions?

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    $\begingroup$ Halloween comes from the Christian celebration of All Hallows' Eve. $\endgroup$ – Monty Wild Nov 2 '15 at 2:06
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    $\begingroup$ @MontyWild Important to note that all those celebrations may have strong roots in paganism, an older belief system than Christianity. $\endgroup$ – Frostfyre Nov 2 '15 at 4:29
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    $\begingroup$ First, clarify what you mean by "holiday". For example, Halloween is not considered a holiday in the UK, because you don't get time off work for it. Are we talking about public holidays or religious celebrations? $\endgroup$ – Mike Scott Nov 2 '15 at 7:29
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    $\begingroup$ @MontyWild All Hallow's Eve actually has its roots in Sanhain, a pagan holiday. It can also be argued that Easter is based on Ostara, Christmas on Yule. The church subverted these holidays in order to help convince people to convert. $\endgroup$ – RubberDuck Nov 2 '15 at 10:39
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    $\begingroup$ I'd look for inspirations on special days in other cultures. A combination of some obscure Japanese tradition with a Sumatran tribe festivity and a Sami backstory would look at least 2/3 original to almost anyone. $\endgroup$ – Davidmh Nov 2 '15 at 13:07
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First of all, I don't think there's any shame in taking our existing holidays as inspiration. Many holidays from different cultures on Earth have similar roots, typically in the meanings of the seasons and other natural phenomena. As religions developed over time, these holidays were imbued with new meanings.

For example, a celebration of the winter equinox seems to be very common in Earth cultures. Early cultures may have wished to appease their gods or other forces of nature in the hopes that winter would end soon, but over time, the celebration itself became the highlight of the event. (Come on, the longest night of the year is exciting!) As ages passed, holidays such as Saturnalia, Hanukkah, and Christmas came about by pairing a certain religious event with the existing winter celebration. In fact, Christmas' date was assigned to align with Saturnalia and related celebrations, specifically the birth of Mithras.

With that said, here are the steps I'd recommend to crafting fictional holidays:

  1. Pick some events of importance to early agrarian societies. Basic examples: the new life of spring (plants in bloom, baby animals, etc.), the autumn harvest, the winter solstice.
  2. Flesh out some pagan traditions that would have come about in response to these events. Physical offerings, bonfires or mass candle-lighting, music and dance are some options to start, but don't be afraid to make them more specific. Pick certain symbols and details that cultures might latch onto over the years.
  3. Establish at least a few major religions of your world, based geographically. Write out some myths and stories for them. Think about which ones would be most central to that religion.
  4. According to your world's history and geography, assign these religious meanings to your celebrations. Consider which cultures were dominant in certain regions at certain points in history; this will affect how some religions will adapt to the existing religions of others, for example to avoid persecution.
  5. Give the holidays a few hundred years for the pagan traditions and religious traditions to merge and evolve. Not all aspects of Christmas are Christian, for example, but not everyone knows this.

EDIT: The comments below are in agreement, so I'm updating this answer with the popular recommendation that historical/political events be given commemorative holidays as well. These holidays will probably be given distinct dates because of their historical relevance, rather than organically blending with religious holidays. They may develop some customs of their own that are loosely based on the event (Independence Day in the U.S. is a pretty big deal, for example), or they may remain exclusively legal holidays. You mentioned that you aren't particularly interested in legal holidays, but consider making a few history-based celebrations if they are particularly pertinent to your world or a certain country in your world.

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    $\begingroup$ I would say that if you add a mention of "political origins" you have a pretty much complete answer. If there was any sort of war in a country's history, then it's incredibly likely that a "liberation day" exists. If there was a revolution, then a "day of the people" or a "day of unity" seems likely. A "day of unity" would also take place if multiple countries decided to merge into one or unite for a common goal. $\endgroup$ – Cronax Nov 2 '15 at 13:26
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    $\begingroup$ @Cronaz is right. Some of the big holidays in our world have nothing to do with seasons or religions. E.g. Guy Fawkes, Queen's Birthday, Labour Day, US Independance Day. So, just pick a day at random and say "This is when the barbarians defeated all their enemies and founded what is now the Kingdom of Fnord." $\endgroup$ – Greenstone Walker Nov 3 '15 at 10:03
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    $\begingroup$ You missed the obvious example of Columbus Day. There could be some sort of important discovery, scientific or otherwise which could be a national holiday. $\endgroup$ – Jason Hutchinson Nov 3 '15 at 21:05
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Work with your history. You do have a history, right? If not, go and write one now, then come back to this answer.

While it is true that many holidays are religious - in fact the word derives from "Holy Day" - holidays are also inspired by other events such as military victories or defeats (such as ANZAC Day or Remembrance day), or by important milestones in public history, such as gaining the right to an 8-hour working day as opposed to a former 12-hour working day, or by sporting events (such as Melbourne Cup Day or AFL Grand Final Day) that people ignore work to attend anyway.

Most of your holidays will be annual events on a given date, but some that date back to events that occurred before the modern calendar was developed (for whatever value of 'modern' your world's calendar has) may be associated with particular seasons and/or astronomical events such as the phases of the moon(s), and may or may not occur every year, and thus may not occur on a single date.

For example, a certain important religious event may have happened as the first snow fell in the Holy City one year, and the holiday that is associated with this event may occur each year with the first snowfall of the year - either on the Holy City (in which case, people celebrate when they hear that snow has fallen there), or in their own location (what happens when there is no snow in that location - ever?). Our Christmas is traditionally a winter festival, so there is a certain amount of dissonance when celebrated in the hemisphere opposite to that in which it was conceived - Consider the incongruity of singing carols about snow in furnace-like summer heat.

In these sorts of cases, it is important to know not only when a holiday was conceived, but where, and to where has it spread since its conception. I've heard stories about a Japanese department store wanting to celebrate Easter one year, and because of the inexperience of the (primarily Shinto) staff in charge of setting up the Easter display with Christian traditions, the store set up a display of a crucified Easter bunny, which remained in place until it was pointed out to them that this was in fact inappropriate. However, your world may not have had someone to correct a holiday's misconceptions, and a holiday in this particular place and those settled from it may have what other people consider quite outrageous features as a consequence.

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  • $\begingroup$ Why would they sing about snow? I mean, the Aussies don't. $\endgroup$ – Frostfyre Nov 2 '15 at 4:23
  • $\begingroup$ @Frostfyre, sure we do. $\endgroup$ – Monty Wild Nov 2 '15 at 4:46
  • $\begingroup$ Alright, not exclusively. Sorry. $\endgroup$ – Frostfyre Nov 2 '15 at 4:49
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Holidays initially started as ways of marking the passage of the seasons (Easter and Christmas are both very near the spring equinox and winter solstice respectively, so the symbology of birth and rebirth has been adapted from other, far older celebrations). So the oldest holidays in your or any world will probably be related to the agricultural season, to reflect planting, harvest, midsummer and midwinter.

Now over the ages, various religions will have latched on to these, and as civilizations or societies rise and fall, the "old ways" may be adapted to the new (Saturnalia becoming Christmas is the easiest example). Tying holidays to other naturally occurring events is also fairly easy to do, so long as the events have some sort of regular pattern. The "Alt History" of Graham Hancock revolves around the precession of the Zodiac; many thousands of years ago, the Sun appeared in the constellation Leo during the spring equinox (it appears in the summer now), so spring holidays may well have revolved around lion mythology. (As more time passed, the precession shifted the constellations so that Taurus and later Pisces appeared with the sun.)

Monty's explanation is also quite good, and easily accounts for more "modern" and secular holidays, as well as some of the problems inherent in calculating just when a holiday should occur.

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Answer the questions below and I think you will arrive at one, suiting your world best, by yourself,

What kind of calendar do they follow ? What does the population do on a daily basis ? How do they spend their days and how is their schedule organized ? Who all hold authority over them and who do they hold with respect ?

Did something happen in the past in the world, when their world was built ?

What is the biggest question they have on their minds ?

What is the biggest deficiency in their society ? (Food, water, housing)

Hope this helped

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Many real holidays have gained certain themes and traditions that accompany them. You can start with that and find an explanation for it.

Examples

  • Christmas is now much about sharing joy exemplified by exchanging presents.
  • Many cultures have dress-up holidays (e.g. Halloween, Carnival) that allow people to pretend to be someone else and escape daily routine for a day.
  • Remembrance or commemoration of several sorts is celebrated everywhere, mostly of defining or unifying events, but also for those who died, perhaps for a specific reason (e.g. war).
  • Most individuals (and couples) are celebrated at a certain annual date where only they are special locally, e.g. day of birth, christening, death, coronation, wedding. For famous and important people, e.g. rulers and founders, their special day can become a national or religious holiday.
  • Thanks-giving is also widespread, although the one thanked may be nature, gods, thy neighbor or someone else and the things or actions that gratitude is expressed for may differ as will the traditions on how to do so.
  • Certain feasts are more likely to induce binge eating (e.g. Easter and Sugar Feast after fasting periods) and family gathering, others afford public shows (fireworks, parades).
  • Many cultures have a holiday at which otherwise improper behavior like excessive drinking (e.g. St. Patrick) or other drug use or lying and pranking (April Fool’s) is tolerated or even expected.
  • Some holidays mark the end or beginning of a certain period economically important for society. That used to be agricultural (meteorological or astronomical events, maybe with indicators in fauna and flora), but now can be just commercial like Black Friday / Cyber Monday.
  • Most festivities have spawned specific decorations that include music (Christmas carols etc.) or noise (e.g. New Year fireworks), lights (ditto and candles or lanterns), colors (e.g. red, green, white and gold around Christmas), clothing (e.g. party hats, costumes, red underwear, veils) etc.
  • Traditional meals may originate in seasonal offerings or sacrifices, e.g. meals (e.g. turkey on Thanksgiving, pumpkin at Halloween, lamb or eggs on Easter, Christmas cookies, cake, pastries, chocolate).
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