A new podcast is out, which means it’s time to celebrate! If you do this regularly, it could even be a holiday, which coincidentally is our topic this week. We’re talking about creating your own holidays, which includes scintillating topics like human sacrifice, cups of holistic depression, and why Halloween is a writer’s best friend. 


Generously transcribed by Viviana. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.

Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreant podcast with your hosts, Oren Ashkenazi Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle. 

[Opening Music]

Wes: You’re listening to the Mythcreant podcast. I’m your host, Wes, and with me today is

Oren: Oren.

Wes: And

Chris: Chris.

Wes: And it’s podcast time again, which is, you know, this nice little ritual we like to have every week. It’s a bit of a holiday for us where we sit around together and honor the goddess Podcastia here by brewing heaping holistic cups of depression and distributing them audibly to our wonderful listeners, because we promise you, no matter how disillusioned you think you are, we can take it a step further. So grab that hot cup, get cozy, and listen to a world-building rant about adding holidays and festivals to your stories.

Oren: I’m really glad that we’ve decided to introduce that review into our show. I think this is what they mean by audience participation.

Wes: I think so. I mean, it was just too good and a little spot on sometimes.

Oren: It’s just the greatest review I think we have ever gotten.

Chris: A bit of poetry to it, that review. Holistic cups of depression.

Wes: I will never get over how beautiful that sounds. So wonderful. So, yeah, today we’re gonna talk about holidays for your world-building. You’ve worked on your story, you’ve probably got a handle on your characters, your people, the plots, geography, your cool magic system, but why not add a little bit more depth? Holidays can give you that chance to maybe think deeper about your culture, your world, add some verisimilitude to it and maybe draw some historical events. So, Chris, Oren, why do worlds need holidays?

Oren: They don’t! I hate ’em! No holidays for anyone.

Wes and Chris: [Laughs]

Wes: The hottest take, no!

Chris: It was actually surprising how few fictional holidays I found, like the TV Tropes page is just practically crickets in there for TV Tropes.I think because they’re something that doesn’t happen all the time, so a writer has to actively think about them and how to work them into the story. I do have some ways that they can be used, but certainly they can be very fun for a culture. I mean, any culture’s gonna have them, right? The question is, for writers, do you actually see it in the story? But, if you’re a world-builder, well it’s not always a big concern. Sometimes you just make your holidays cuz you know they’re there.

Oren: I mean, the reason why both Wikipedia and TV Tropes have pretty bare lists is that there just aren’t really that many stories where a fictional holiday is actually portrayed in any depth. For some reason, neither of them have Over The Garden Wall with whatever the heck was going on in Potsfield. That was great. That’s like one of the best fictional holidays ever.

Chris: That wasn’t just Halloween?

Oren:  I mean, it was a harvest festival, right? It was a spooky harvest festival.

Wes: They dug people up when they were ready to join the party.

Chris: I mean, the entire Over The Garden Wall is basically one Halloween episode.

Oren: I mean, in my experience, most spec fic stories that have a holiday that it goes into any depth on are either doing a Halloween episode and they either just have it be Halloween in the story, if the story takes place in the real world, or if they’re not in the real world or they’re under, for some reason, really tight time constraints where their story can’t take place in October, they make up a holiday that’s clearly Halloween, but a little different. Like Summerween from Gravity Falls. Which is, you know, Gravity Falls is an intentionally absurdist show, so no one’s caring too much about that. But then the other version is that it’s just Christmas, again, and ‘Here we’re doing a Christmas episode and it’s not the real world, so we call it something else. You know, we call it like, Jesusmas or something.’

Chris: Yeah. I am kind of tired of holidays in fictional worlds that are just real-world holidays with another name. And it’s one thing if it’s like, Hogswatch, right? Where the idea is that we’re doing a parody and the whole novelty of it is making death act like Santa Claus, right? That you get some value out of it being Christmas because you’re doing a subversion. But, in so many stories, it’s just the writer, you know, really wanted it to be Christmas or something, or wanted somebody to have a birthday. That’s another really common one. It’s like every fictional culture celebrates people’s birthdays and just didn’t really want to create a new holiday instead of the one that they’re used to.

Wes: Yeah, and I agree, like it is a little tired at this point because there’s also a sense that those writers are like, ‘Iwanna do a holiday episode. I’m gonna pick the most popular holidays in Western culture to just put into my story so everybody gets it.’

Oren: Well, I mean if they want a fun holiday episode, they pick Halloween cuz Halloween’s the only holiday that isn’t controversial in any significant way. You know, I’m sure there are people who hate Halloween, but they’re so few and far between that no one really listens to them. Whereas every other holiday has religious elements that you might or might not want, or a really dark history like Thanksgiving. Nobody wants that. Let’s put on costumes and get candy, and Halloween’s great cuz it can be funny or it can be scary. It’s a very flexible holiday, whereas like Christmas is the holiday they pick if they want to teach a lesson and usually the lesson is that you need to love Christmas more.

Wes and Chris: [Laughs]

Oren: How dare you.

Wes: What’s the meaning of Christmas, Oren? What is the meaning of it?

Oren: [Laughs]

Wes: Love it more! Shut up!

Chris: Oh, man. Yeah, the Librarians episode in particular where Eve is like, ‘How dare you not love Christmas?’

Oren: Look, I’m just saying there’s a reason why there isn’t a Discworld book about Soul Cake Tuesday, even though there should be. You get to hang out with the Aoul Cake Duck.

Wes: But I mean, it’s a good point picking those two holidays because they’re like, not controversial. But if you’re world-building, one of the interesting things about a holiday is how much you get to draw, or invent in this case, the history of how it came to be is a lot to craft already, and then what do people do on the day is also another opportunity for crafting something interesting. I mean, here in the States, we have the 4th of July, and there’s the historical explanation for how that became a holiday. But what did we do today? Apparently, we would just blow stuff up and give all our pets panic attacks, like it’s horrible! [Laughs]

Chris: Also people.

Wes: And people, yes. Ugh.

Oren: I mean, that’s why nobody uses 4th of July as their holiday in the story cuz it’s controversial.

Wes: But like, you know, you could consider, if you had a newish country in your story and you wanted to have some kind of Independence Day festival, you know, look at what we do now, realize that it’s bad cuz everybody just lays in bed all night because nobody stops blowing things up and say, ‘Well what if it was more of a somber holiday?’ You know, right? And then, started trying to take it in a different direction.

Oren: You know, hint, hint.

All: [Laughs]

Wes: Please, can we just all go to bed at nine?

Oren: Have a couple of characters turn to each other and be like, ‘Man, I’m really glad we don’t irresponsibly set off a bunch of explosives. That would be weird. It’s good that we don’t do that.’

Wes: [Laughs]

Oren: I’ve discovered a new way to make lessons with your holidays.

Wes: There we go, perfect, and it’s not even Christmas! Wonderful.

Oren: When I’m making up holidays, which I don’t think I’ve ever done for any of my written stories, but I do it for role-playing games all the time. ‘Cuz you know, players demand stuff like that cuz they’re weird.

Chris: Hey, Harvest Festival one-shot was great.

Oren: Yeah, it was creepy ‘cuz everyone was secretly an animal, it was fantastic. But I’m very lazy and I just pick astronomically significant dates and build holidays around them. So it’s like, ‘All right, we’re gonna have Solstice holidays and some Equinox holidays at, you know, the important times of the year.  There’s like the Planting ‘cuz that’s when everyone puts food in the ground, so we’re gonna have a holiday there and then we’re gonna have a holiday at the harvest ‘cuz that’s where you get the food out of the ground, and that’s how I do it. Just, it’s so easy. I mean, maybe there’ll be an Independence Day or like a King’s Feast day, if there’s a king or something, who knows?

Wes: Yeah, it’s so easy. That makes sense because pretty much everywhere observes the change of the seasons, right? I mean, it’s almost a universal fact of culture is most everybody marks the change of the seasons in some way with some kind of something.

Oren: This is true, but it’s important to remember that seasons are actually very different depending on where you are in the world. You know, if you live in a northern hemisphere temperate country, it’s easy to assume that Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter are universal. But in a lot of places, those particular three seasons don’t really have a ton of significance and they sometimes have three seasons or two or six. So, you know, that just depends on the local weather and climate.

Wes: No, and that’s true, but I mean, I think the point is we like to mark change and so if you have two seasons, Dry and Wet, mark those with a something, right? Maybe it’s not a time to be like, celebrating, maybe it’s actually time to get the tarps up and make sure your house is waterproof, right? And have people over to make a big deal of it because, ‘Hey, we don’t wanna drown this year.’ That’s the first cup of depression.

All: [Laughs]

Chris: I’d really like to see more unusual seasonal events. Like for instance, what if you had a holiday that was based on an animal migration?

Wes: Oh, yes.

Chris: Right? It could be anything from like the locusts are here and they ate our crops, but then they died and now we eat them. [[Laughs] You know, to maybe there’s an unusual thing that happens in the sky that’s really pretty. Or you could have an eclipse where things get dark. Yeah, I think any recurring theme that’s based on seasons or what’s happening in the sky or what animals are doing. I would just love to see a little bit more creativity there because yeah, I mean, if you think through your planting schedule, you know, if a lot of people in a world are farmers and it’s cool and unusual, you could absolutely have unique holidays based on that, and it’s not bad to have a planting festival and a harvest festival. But there’s also just a lot more creative options that we can use.

Wes: When you said migration and things like that, my thought was, ‘Oh, I want more holidays, that you know, the Harfoots from The Rings of Power, whatdo they celebrate? Do they travel all the time?’

Chris: I could just watch a show that’s nothing but the Harfoots.

Wes: I would love that [Laughs]

Chris: [Laughs] Just doing their normal lives. ‘Here’s our holidays.’

Wes: If you have nomadic people, then holiday is probably very much tied to place. If you’re always moving, the place changes with what you celebrate based on where you are, and there’s a lot to offer there. That’s very dynamic.

Chris: Also, the funerals they hold when they leave people to die in their caravans, apparently.

All: [Laughs]

Oren: Yeah…

Wes: Yikes.

Chris: That part.

Oren: Hmm.

Chris: Nice, holistic cup of depression. Served.

Oren: There we go. [Laughs] I love the Harfoots. They’re like, totally cooperative and communal, and then when they’re on the road, apparently if you can’t keep up, they just leave you to die. It’s like, suddenly they all become objectivists. It’s like, what? What is happening here?

All: [Laughs]

Chris: Look, writers need conflict, okay?

Oren: Yeah. I guess it was hard to create a conflict around a guy breaking his ankle unless everyone in the village was, you know, just completely callous and uncaring. It’s alright we needed young Gandolf to help them push the card. It’s fine.

Wes and Chris: [Laughs]

Chris: So what are ideas for what we could base holidays off of?

Wes: Well, gods get holidays sometimes.

Chris: Yeah. I do think that almost falls often in with his celebrating historical events. Right? Because a lot of those religious holidays have a supposed ‘This is when the prophet was born and this is when the prophet died or…’ Right? Other events in the religion that they’re celebrating along with historical events.

Oren: Well, they often start that way. Although it’s worth thinking about the fact that holidays change over time a lot, and often the reason for celebrating them is just completely different. And I mean, even today, Christmas is Christ’s Mass, technically speaking. But for a lot of people it’s not about Jesus. That’s not what it’s about. Now, it still is for plenty, right? And it’s not that there’s anything wrong with that. But you could easily have a holiday that starts by celebrating a specific religious person who did a thing. That person could fade from importance and something else could take over. You know, often the holiday itself persists long beyond the reason why it was started.

Chris: Okay, hot take. Maybe make your fictional world a little simpler than the real world.

Wes: [Laughs]

Chris: For the sake of your audience.

Oren: I was gonna say that. That was the other thing was that I think most fictional holidays, you don’t want them to be as complicated as real holidays.

Chris: I mean, don’t get me wrong, if your story or what you’re building is really about the cultural changes over time and the fact that, you know, people used to worship the old gods, but then the new gods came over and co-opted their holidays. If that’s what’s important to what you’re creating, then absolutely you could do that and create those multiple layers. But I think we could also easily go too far when really we want something that’s kind of easy for people to understand and somewhat intuitive.

Oren: Yeah. I mean, I don’t think in a casual scene, you’re gonna wanna have to try to explain how we got from the crucifixion of a religious savior to a rabbit hiding eggs.

Wes and Chris: [Laughs]

Oren: You know, that’s kind of a drift, right? And I think if you tried to explain that in a casual chapter in a novel, it would be very confusing.

All: [Laughs]

Oren: But I mean, if celebrating important events is a big one, and I mean, for America, that’s obviously Independence Day, but there are other events that can spawn holidays. Armistice Day, you know, we celebrate that as Veterans Day now, but it’s, I believe, still Armistice day in Europe. That marks the end of the First World War and so big events like that. Or there can be, you know, Memorial Holidays. If there was a big old plague and a lot of people died, there’s not a specific day the plague can be said to have taken place on, but it’s not uncommon that you would have some kind of holiday, if not a fun one, some kind of observance to mark that kind of event.

Chris: Mm-hmm. I also think it’s good to think about rites of passage and sometimes those rites of passage are kind of personal for one character, like people have a coming of age celebration. Or, you know, graduating to new responsibilities. But you could also make them a group thing that happens for a bunch of people at once, like graduation day, right? So you could also have a holiday where everybody in a certain kind of age bracket goes through their coming of age ritual together and transitions into adulthood, for instance. Or like where a bunch of babies all get named.

Wes: Oh yeah, old naming ceremony.

Chris: Yeah, or something like that. So you could definitely have regular times in which groups go through that together to create a bigger holiday from a more personal coming of age ceremony.

Wes: Yeah, I like the personal aspect to it. You don’t have to make your holidays all like make a big can happen on an individual level as well. I always think about how, not here, but plenty of other countries will celebrate like name days that have more weight than their birthdays if you’re named after like Patron Saint or something like that, that ties in a different element to it. Your identity that gets celebrated from fashion than a birthday that represents something completely different.

Chris: What about the holidays that seem to be excuses to party?

Wes: Oh, yes.

All: [Laughs]

Chris: I guess most of them start from something more serious, but right now it just seems to be what Halloween is.

Wes: Halloween and St. Patrick’s Day.

Chris: Yeah, well, St. Patrick’s Day is at least named after St. Patrick, so I’m assuming that it had a more, you know, religious or reverential connotation.

Oren: I’m also gonna just throw it out there that we may have a slightly different perspective on St. Patrick’s Day than say, people who live in Ireland. Now, I don’t know what their perspective on St. Patrick’s Day is. I’ve only ever experienced American St. Patrick’s Day, which is, you know, Go-to-bars-and-get-drunk day. So I don’t know how the Irish celebrate it, but I suspect it may be a little different.

Chris? This is also how Americans celebrate- White Americans, at least- celebrate Cinco de Mayo.

Wes: Chris, I think white Americans celebrate every holiday with alcohol. [Laughs]

Chris: Like every other holiday everywhere on earth.

Wes: Just an excuse. Or, I really like that idea that you could have a holiday in your world, but maybe an empire like co-opted that celebrates it very different from a place of- arguably like the place of origin or something like that. There’s some good potential for tension.

Chris: Yeah, you want cultural appropriation in your world?

Wes: Yeah, enjoy!

Oren: I mean, if you want cultural clashes, a lot of that comes up around holidays. If your empire has conquered a new province and people who live there have a holiday where they, you know, celebrate their local religious figure and the empire doesn’t like that because the religious figure is a center for resistance, then you’ve got some great conflict there, man, it’s good. It might be a little too real in some sense, but sometimes that’s what you want. You can also use plot important backstory as holidays, and that’s a convenient way to both explain things and make it feel a little real. Like on this day, five centuries ago, the great Dark God was defeated and now we celebrate how the Dark God will never return.

Wes: Never!

All: [Laughs]

Oren: Unless this certain thing were to happen, but don’t worry, that’ll never happen. It’ll be fine.

Wes: That’s like a reverse psychology prophecy. I don’t remember a whole lot about it, but I read Midnight’s Children in my early twenties by Salman Rushdie. I’m very glad he’s on the mend, by the way. And it was the story about his kids that were born in the first 12 hours of Indian independence from UK and they all had special powers because they were born each hour. They had different powers from that birth, so their whole beings were tied to the identity of independence and stuff. It was a very cool concept, I think, for taking that historical event, but putting much more of a supernatural spin on it.

Oren: That’s super cool. Also, I mean, another reason why Halloween is a cool holiday and why it shows up in so many different forms is just the idea of a certain time of year when the barriers between the real world and the magic world are thinner, is just a very evocative idea and people love that one and they do a lot of cool stuff with it. It doesn’t necessarily have to be in Halloween form, right? You can have that idea in other types of holidays, it’s just a very useful one.

Chris: Also, generates conflict, creates tension. Stories always need that.

Wes: Yeah, stories always need ghosts.

Chris: Example of a fictional holiday, one of the few that I’ve actually seen, ‘cuz they are surprisingly few and far between, is in The 100, I don’t know, this might be from the books/ I’m not sure if this was created for the TV show. The TV show did create a conlang that wasn’t in the books and everything, so it’s possible it’s not in the book, but up on the station, again, the idea is it’s post-apocalyptic and humanity has fled into a space station because earth is unlivable because of radiation

Oren: Except that it’s totally not. Anyway, moving on.

Chris and Oren: Spoilers!

Chris: For the first episode. Okay, in this case they have a Unity Day which is when all of the different space stations of different nations kind of join into one big space station and then later they reveal that actually this happy Unity Day has a dark past where one of the stations refused to join and was destroyed. Okay, now it just sounds like Thanksgiving.

Oren: Yeah. I mean, that is very 100 of them.

All: [Laughs]

Oren: Anytime anything nice happens on 100, you’re like, ‘Yeah, okay, where’s the knife? Something bad is hidden in here somewhere.’ 

Wes and Oren: [Laughs]

Chris: It’s actually surprisingly similar to the Firefly Unification Day, which is just, you know, when the Civil War was ended by the people that are supposed to be bad, but are also an analogy for the north in the United States. So it’s uncomfortable for both the viewers and the characters!

All: [Laughs]

Oren: It’s fine, don’t worry about it.

Wes: I do think it’s interesting, both examples are far-future, fractured society, like ‘Gotta come back together.’ It’s almost seems like an inevitable type of holiday to come from that type of thing.

Chris: Well, you know what? Any dystopia, right? There’s gonna be euphemisms, like ‘Unification, yay!’

Wes: ‘Stronger together.’

Oren: Peace Day. Anything in a dystopian setting that starts with ‘peace’ is never gonna go well. I mean, arguably the Hunger Games is basically a holiday.

Wes: I was just gonna say that. That is definitely a holiday.

Oren: Yeah! The best kind of holiday with murder!

Wes: I meant to say earlier, but yeah, for like harvest festivals and stuff, we have Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” short story. It’s just like, you can get pretty dark with these things, sacrifice, there’s thousands of years of sacrifice that we can look at from all over real-world and fictional what happens/

Oren: Or, what you could do is you could be all Roman and make a big point about how ‘We don’t do human sacrifices. That makes us better than the barbarians. We just strangle people during our triumph parades in front of big statues of the gods and their temples. That’s not a human sacrifice though. That’s a triumph celebration.’

Wes: It’s totally different. [Laughs]

Oren: ‘And then we have a bunch of gladiators fight, often to the death, in front of big statues of the gods. That’s also not a human sacrifice. That’s just entertainment. Don’t worry about it.’

Wes: I just love that idea. It’s like, ‘You do what? You just kill them and everybody, like doesn’t do anything? We might as well make it entertaining.’ [Laughs] 

Oren: Imean, have ’em fight for it, you know?

Wes: [Laughs] Yeah. For real. 

Oren: If someone doesn’t have a trident and a net, you’re doing human sacrifice wrong.

Chris: I was gonna say, if we’re gonna get into sacrifices at harvest festivals into folk horror, then we’ve got a whole other bunch of holidays [Laughs] to draw from, from movies like The Wickerman.

Oren: That is an interesting point. Just think about, it’s a little detail, it might not matter unless it does, is the sacrifices that are being made, are they real or symbolic? If, for example, you have a sacrifice where you sacrifice a cow, if you then eat the cow, that’s a symbolic sacrifice. That’s not a real sacrifice. That’s just eating the cow. 

Chris? Oh, I see how it is. You’re gonna gate keep sacrifices, huh?

Wes and Oren: [Laughs]

Oren: I’m just saying it’s important to consider which one it is cause it has different implications!

Chris: I didn’t realize you were a sacrifice elitist, Oren.

Oren: Look, and I’m a sacrifice descriptivist, and there are certain things that are sacrifices and certain things that are not. A barbecue’s not a sacrifice! [Laughs]

Wes: [Laughs]

Oren: it’s just delicious!

Wes: Oh man. I’m a little worried about what happened to those gladiators in your stories. [Laughs]

Oren: Yeah. If you eat the gladiator afterwards, that’s just lunch.

Wes: Another thing you might consider on your holidays or just a few questions of what people do, we kind of mention rituals and things like that, but you might consider food. We were just talking about that. Is there traditional food served? Are gifts exchanged? Are there games that people play? You know, all of those things come in around a holiday, especially if the reason for the season is largely forgotten and it’s mostly about searching for eggs that some rabbit left, you know?

All: [Laughs]

Wes: Right? I think it’s kinda like those fun little things where you can kind of name your holiday without getting too deep into it while having some action take place, like exchanging gifts or playing a game or something like that. That might arguably be more interesting than just, you know, some exposition dump on the history of a holiday and why these youths don’t understand the sacrifices and the people we ate along the way.

Chris: Also, dressing up and getting together, right? Especially if you have a really social story. It’s an excuse for everybody to get in really fancy clothes and then rub elbows with your enemies, because you’re all together at some sort of local celebration or holiday.

Oren: Plus, you can’t wear your nice clothes all year. That just doesn’t work, most people aren’t gonna have the money for that, so you designate times to wear your nice clothes and no one’s confused and everyone wears their nice clothes at the same time. So it’s not awkward and weird.

Chris: And naturally, if you’re writing a romance, every holiday you have to bring a date. It’s just mandatory.

Oren: Yeah.

Wes: Oh yes.

Oren: But like a fake date at first. Or is it?

All: [Laughs]

Chris:Another thing that I think could be pretty juicy is acting out any kind of ritualized role that could be part of the holiday. Similar to, you know in every anime there’s like, a theater episode where the characters choose their roles in the fairy tale, and then it’s a big deal about, ‘Oh, who’s the prince and who’s the princess?’ You could do something like that where people are the May Queen or have some other role to play during the holiday. That’s also what happens in The Wickerman, actually. Again, if you have a social story, a holiday is a great to switch things up and put people in interesting social situations.

Wes: Yeah, so next time you sit down to your world-building, or your stories or your games or whatever you wanna do, just don’t forget that holidays actually do offer quite a lot of things to maybe bring to the table, and you can get as detailed as you want or not. If you just want to make a point that all of these things are symbolic sacrifices, and yes, we do get to eat that cow, go for it.

Chris: If you enjoyed this episode, support us on Patreon. Go to patreon.com/mythcreants or mythcreants.com/support.

Oren: Before we go, I wanna thank a few of our existing patrons. First we have Callie McLeod, then we have Kathy Ferguson, who’s a professor of political theory in Star Trek. Next we have Ayman Jaber. He is an urban fantasy writer and a connoisseur of Marvel. And finally, we have Danita Rambo. She lives at therambogeeks.com. We would have a holiday for all of them if we could, and maybe one day we will. The holiday of Patreonia. But until then, we will see you next week.

[Closing Music]

This has been the Mythcreant Podcast. Opening/closing theme, “The Princess Who Saved Herself” by Jonathan Colton.

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