Celebrations

Fantasy writing need not be one long drag for your story’s characters, celebrate and try livening things up on occasion, because social interaction on a larger scale provides opportunities for all sorts of things to happen – including pivotal points in your story.  Apart from the preparation, giddy anticipation, the big day itself and the clean-up (or consequences) afterwards, there can be so much more happening.  You’re bringing all these people together, potentially from different social classes, villages, tribes, worlds, etc. to mingle and revel – so just about anything could happen, such as:

  • Organised ritual.
  • Romantic and chance encounters.
  • Secretive dealings.
  • Assassinations and murders.
  • Thefts and sleight of hand.
  • Escapes in plain sight.
  • A rapid spread of rumours, diseases and myths – as well as the generation of more.
  • Simmering tensions and all out brawls.

Ah yes, nothing like a good brawl to entertain the crowd.  But what types of celebrations will bring your characters together long enough to allow them to have something like a decent punch up?  If you’re writing contemporary fantasy there are a myriad of celebratory events available today from lavish weddings to mardi gras parades, but what about stories set in a historical world?  In the past when cities, towns and villages were planning a celebration it took a great deal of effort to bring in entertainments for the masses, and without the benefit of email, social media and telephones, any special arrangements would have been a massive logistical challenge.  Therefore, any large celebration was exceedingly important, highly anticipated and could go on for days.  Here are a few celebratory occasions that originated centuries ago that may provide inspiration for your own story:

  • Animal fairs – Animals have often been the centre of festivals since ancient times; for trading, comparisons, competitions and feasting.  It’s believed that some neolithic peoples brought in a herd of cattle or pigs to slaughter and eat over the course of a celebration, possibly in memory of their ancestors.  Medieval peoples would also dress their herds up in garlands of flowers to bring them down from or take them back up to the fields (in autumn and spring).  One unusual Irish animal fair is the “King Puck” fair in the village of Killorglin, where each August the townspeople catch a wild billy goat and crown him as King of a 3 day fair (the origins of King Puck are a bit hazy; one theory is that the goat may be a pagan fertility symbol). But the animals being celebrated don’t necessarily have to be real.  Chinese celebrations often focus on the dragon as a symbol of good luck and often feature dragon dances and rituals (e.g. such as waking a specially constructed ‘dragon’ that is then paraded through the streets).
  • Competitions – Games and sports have been due cause for celebration for millennia, sometimes kicking off even if a festival has nothing to do with sport at all (anyone for a game of football?).  But the common underlying purpose of many games in the past was simply to keep a nation or area ‘battle-ready’ in times of uncertainty and unrest.  Nevertheless, those competing usually looked beyond that basic need and instead chose to celebrate their national pride, or a god, or just prove who was the fastest, strongest and/or the smartest.  Greece is famous for its Olympic games, held in honour of Zeus, where naked competitors from miles around would vie for nothing more than laurel crowns – but it allowed the country to keep its men fit and trained in essential battle skills.  Similarly, games of all sorts have been held in every nook and cranny of the world with the same intention (usually accompanied by wild celebrations for the victors) such as hurling, wrestling, spear-throwing, archery, horse-riding agility, hammer-throwing, foot races and jousting.
  • Winning a war – Some of the largest parties in history have been thrown when a long, bloody war was finally won.  Initial bewilderment by those who had fought was followed by jubilation when they returned home to their loved ones, and such celebrations were likely to reoccur the following year to mark the anniversary of the end of a war.
  • Religious festivals – Christian medieval calendars were choked with festivals for Saints days, Easter, Christmas, etc. to liven up the drudgery of life.  Many of these were based on pagan festivals, which tended to be more practical as they celebrated important events necessary for survival, such as mid-winter festivals to celebrate the lengthening of the days and the spring festival for taking the animals back out to pasture.  Pagan and Christian festivals did tend to mix and meld quite a bit, with bonfires, dancing around Maypoles, visits to holy wells, dressing houses with flowers of a specific colour, leaving offerings to spirits, match-making, etc. featuring in many such festivals, as well as a mass at church or even a religious parade where a relic or important statue were brought out for the day (such as St. Dominic covered in live serpents in Cocullo Italy).
  • Rites of passage – Momentous rites of passage are usually accompanied by celebration and relate to social, religious or life transformation, e.g. unbaptised to baptised, child to adult, unmarried to wedded, novice to master, alive to dead.  In the past, coming of age rites were considered far more important than they are today.  Some of these rites could be dangerous, such as land diving (bungee jumping) in Vanuatu, wearing bullet-ant gloves in Brazil, killing off enemy slaves in Sparta, native American Mandan skewer hanging and various cultures have practiced bloodletting and scarification.  Having a 21st birthday bash seems very tame in comparison.
  • Hunts – Hunting originated with the need for gathering food.  But this gradually transformed into a sport over time, with hawk, hound and horse, as well as bow and gun.  Medieval monarchs would take their court out into their private forests and happily hunt for hours, then follow the occasion with celebrations and feasting on the game taken.  But although this may seem frivolous, some hunts on the European continent spent more time honouring the creatures they’d taken from the forest, such as in some boar hunts when tapers were lit, a fir branch placed in the mouth of each dead animal, a few quiet words spoken and the horn called.  But all hunts usually preceded a celebration of many things; the great outdoors, the thrill of the chase, the one that got away and the one that wasn’t so lucky.
  • Momentous births – It’s not something we celebrate so much today, but the birth of an heir, particularly to monarchs and important nobles, was often accompanied by an impromptu holiday and spontaneous celebration.  However, we do tend to celebrate our own births each year as well as others who may have been born years or even centuries ago, such as Jesus, Buddha, Muhammad, Kings/Queens/Emperors, etc.
  • New Year – No matter which calendar you follow, New Year has always been greeted with a rousing welcome – a fresh year with new promise and potential.
  • Holi and Diwali – I’m going to mention these two Hindu festivals specifically as they are so colourful and joyous, they’re worthy of celebration.  During Holi people throw colourful powder or Gulal at each other to celebrate colour, love and frivolousness, and there is also feasting and revelling.    While Diwali, the festival of lights, celebrates the victory of good over evil, light over the dark, and traditionally marks the end of the summer harvest with millions of lights shining, glorious fireworks and sharing food with family and friends.  Colour and light, what better reasons to celebrate?

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