As I’m writing this, it’s Good Friday and I’m preparing for my role as puppeteer in my church’s annual Easter event. In thinking about the holiday and all that comes with it, I got to thinking about holidays in writing. Have you ever read a book that just skipped over a major holiday like it didn’t exist? It can be disconcerting and give the story a feeling of inauthenticity. Holidays are a huge part of our lives and our world, no matter which ones your character celebrates or doesn’t. Here’s why.
1. They’re a part of life.
Holidays are important to humans. We have traditions, we have decorations, we have presents, events, and special outfits. We make it a big deal. So do the stores. Even if your character doesn’t celebrate Christmas, it’s impossible to miss the lights on houses and toy displays in stores. It starts as early as Halloween and it’s everywhere. Your character should notice and have some thought or opinion on it. Most people celebrate some holidays throughout the year. Chances are, so will your characters. It’s a good way to make them feel like they live in our world.
2. You can make your own!
But, but, you say. My character doesn’t live in this world and/or isn’t human. Awesome! That means you can make up your own. If you do some searching, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a culture that has no holidays, no celebrations, no yearly traditions. They all do. If you’ve written a different world, then you have the opportunity to go wild and think up your own. Maybe your characters string toenails in a necklace and give it to their best friends every Toe Day. It might sound strange, but think about what we do. We cut down trees and stick them in our houses, then cover them in lights and glass balls. We dress up as goblins and vampires and knock on doors to get candy. When it’s something you haven’t grown up with, holiday traditions sound bizarre. Hiding a bunch of plastic eggs filled with candy? Writing a list of resolutions that we never keep? Who came up with these things, and how did they become normal to us?
3. They show a lot about your characters.
Think for a minute about George’s dad on Seinfeld. He didn’t celebrate Christmas. He made up his own holiday, Festivus, because he was so sick of Christmas and its traditions. We know a lot about him because of this. Same goes for your characters. Do they buck tradition or maybe skip it altogether? Do they go overboard and leave up a decorated Christmas tree all year? Who do they give gifts to? Who do they celebrate with? How do they celebrate? Which holidays do they love? Which holidays do they hate? Which ones make them cry? Which ones make them joyful? You have a big opportunity to show off your characters when it comes to holidays. People handle them so differently.
4. They’re a break from the norm.
It’s something unusual that happens in life. We have off work, we travel, we do things we wouldn’t do on any other day of the year. This is an opportunity to create some unique events and/or “coincidences” (see my post on making your story feel less contrived). Things happen on holidays that never happen any other day. Like kissing a stranger at midnight. Acceptable on December 31. On June 6, though? Not so much. People feel more charitable around Christmas and more lonely on Valentine’s Day. These are things outside of your character that may force them to act in a way they wouldn’t normally.
5. They can’t be ignored.
No matter how hard you try, you’ll see Walmart turn red, green, and gold. You’ll pass houses lit to the skies. You’ll see huge crosses in front of churches. Kids will knock on your door dressed as princesses and super heroes. You can try, but you really can’t ignore holidays. You characters will have to act in some way. Even if it’s to turn out the lights and put up a sign saying “no candy,” they’ve done something about the holiday. They have thoughts and feelings about it, good or bad. Don’t just gloss over it or not mention it at all.
6. They’re good markers of time.
If you open your story with your character dressing in red, white, and blue and heading off to the fireworks display, we know it’s summer and that it’s the 4th of July. Holidays are a great way to show the reader what time of year your story takes places without just saying, “It was July.” They’re also not bad for making time pass. Maybe your story starts in summer, but then skips to January. If you open the next section with a brief description of how he or she celebrated Christmas, or maybe have them eating Christmas leftovers for dinner, we know time has passed and we know what the new time of year is.
7. They can slow down your story.
Hmm. This doesn’t sound like good advice, you say? You’re right. That’s because you should also beware of overusing holidays in your story. If it’s not integral to your plotline, you don’t want to go into detail. I think Breaking Dawn has a good example of this. The Cullins are preparing for a huge battle in which they might die. Their house is full of strange people, yet it’s their child’s first Christmas. By including the day, but not spending too much time on it, we got to see Bella’s stress, Jacob’s tenderness, Charlie’s excitement (and the fact that he spent it with Sue was a good indicator of the direction of their relationship), and we saw that most of the other vampires didn’t even notice it was Christmas. It would have been strange to skip the day since Bella was so close to her human days and had many human(ish) friends. But it wasn’t too important to the plot, so there wasn’t a lot of time given for it. Don’t add in a major holiday scene lasting a whole chapter unless you can really use it to move the plot forward and make it feel significant.
Don’t forget to think about how your characters spend their holidays and what other traditions they might have. Do they make a big deal out of birthdays? Do they celebrate the anniversary of a special date? Most people do. These significant days can round out your character and show emotions that might not normally come out on the page.