We anchor our years through the holidays we celebrate. Think about it: we celebrate new beginnings, commemorate great moments of religious significance, and remember great moments in our national history. Holidays possess their own traditions, superstitions, histories, and importance. Different holidays matter different amounts (looking at you, President's Day).
Because holidays are woven so deeply into the fabric of any society, when you're designing a fictitious world, it's weird if there is nothing celebrated regularly. When I designed Summer Twilight, I put a lot of thought into one particular holiday in Rosemoor Dell: the Harvest Festival. In this article, I'll take you though some of the processes I used to develop the holiday and help it feel authentic.
Holidays Celebrate What Matters
In the United States, we celebrate Independence Day because it's an important day in our national history. It symbolizes patriotism and perseverance. Today, it's an excuse to drink beer, watch fireworks, and make classic barbecue. Regardless of how it is actually practiced, there is deep meaning and intention behind the holiday.
Similarly, to design an equivalent holiday, I started with thinking about what matters. Agriculture is the largest and most prosperous industry in Rosemoor Dell. So, if you're a farmer, what matters to you? In my mind, planting and harvest are two of the most important moments: planting symbolizes renewal, while the harvest represents prosperity and wealth. If the harvest is good, a family will eat well and earn a small fortune; if it is poor, a family may struggle to make it through winter (as will those who depend on their harvest). So, in this agrarian society, the harvest would have some sort of great celebration.
Second, in Rosemoor, the gods are important. The people of the land are superstitious; many events are attributed to the gods' favor or fury. Therefore, the harvest celebration would probably revolve around the gods in some way. My next step was figuring out how.
Our Celebrations are Steeped in Mythology
Thanksgiving in the U.S. revolves around a mythical picture of Native Americans and Pilgrims sitting down together and sharing a meal. I say mythical, because this has been widely debunked in recent years. This history is a glowing revisionist history of the massacres, illnesses, and general devastation wrecked by the Pilgrims upon Native Americans, who had been living in North America for over ten thousand years. But, despite these realities being widely known and accepted, we all still hold on to the picture of a little man in a black hat sharing hot turkey with a friendly Native American. It's a story we tell our children and celebrate each year, however falsely.
In the Harvest Festival of Rosemoor, I wanted a similar origin story. Since the largest harvest occurs towards the end of summer, I decided it would make sense for the history of the holiday to revolve around the great love affair between Iya the Immolator and Erius the Arbiter (for more on religion in Summer Twilight, check out this article).
According to the annals of history, Iya, the goddess of passion and summer, rages bright and hot. Her power scorches the land during the warmer months, inspiring summer romance and lighting the flames of passion. Erius is the god of justice and autumn; after Iya's reign is over, his cool winds and rains soothe the land, his steady keel guiding the passion of early romance into its mature stages.
In my head, it made perfect sense that these two gods would fall in love. Erius has the cool head to temper Iya's flames and passions, while she has the spontaneity to bring joy and laughter to the relationship. Importantly, any relationship - and any harvest - needs both components. Iya kindles the spark which is nurtured with summer heat and passion; then Erius brings the nutrients, the roots to the moment which allows crops, and love, to grow strong.
So, the Harvest Festival traditionally celebrates the union of these two gods; actors perform the story of them falling in love and being wed, and the Harvest Festival ends with the lighting of a Great Effigy, which represents the final flames of summer before autumn takes hold.
Sprinkle in Food, Dances, and Other Traditions
Now that we have the broad strokes, details need to be painted in. When Chinese New Year is celebrated, for example, there are lucky foods (dumplings, fortune noodles, moon cakes), the exchange of gifts (red envelopes), and other traditions (offerings to ancestors, traditional dances). Without these details, a holiday is just a story on paper. Tradition is how we enact the holiday every year.
Importantly, traditions will vary from family to family. At Christmas, my fiancé and I open one gift on Christmas Eve, then the rest the next morning. Other families open all their gifts on Christmas Eve, or wait until dinner on Christmas Day. Neither is wrong, and all commemorate the same tradition in a different way. If things are too uniform, they aren't real - so building a fictional holiday requires an understanding and appreciation of this variation.
In Rosemoor, the biggest tradition is attending the Harvest Festival in Iera City. The Festival boasts delicious, traditional food (from honeycomb tea to cranberry bread); performances; and stalls to purchase commemorative trinkets (like little carvings of Iya and Erius). However, if a family cannot attend the large festival, there are usually smaller celebrations in the other major cities, like Torren, Hollyfrost, and Everfall. The exact dishes served will vary based on locale, but the central theme is the same: a celebration of the successful harvest, and of the prosperity it brings.
Bridget is the author of Summer Twilight, available for purchase now!