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Worlds Apart January 2009

The World of Festivals and Ritual


Since we are fast approaching the holidays, let’s take a little break from the technicalities of research and think about festivals and rituals. ‘Tis the season, after all.


All human societies observe cyclical festivals, rituals and similar forms of celebration. In some cases these observances are frequent, while in others they are less so, but there is no society that does not have them. In the Communist era in Eastern Europe, religious rituals such as baptisms were abolished when atheism became public policy, but there was still a need to mark an infant’s entry into society and so a “Welcome to the Community” ritual was designed to replace baptism. The social need to mark the stages in a person’s life or the progress of society through the year is extremely powerful.


When you are writing historical fiction you are placing your characters and their story in a past era, and one of the best ways to illustrate that era is to describe some of its ceremonies, festivals and rituals – both religious and secular. Your task is to engage your readers, to interest them, and to build a world they can understand and see as consistent. One of the easiest ways to do that is to include a celebration or festival your readers can actually relate to.


The Christmas festival is a prime example of this technique. Whether they actually celebrate it or not, all your readers will know about Christmas, and great interest can be added to your writing by describing Christmas as it was celebrated in times past. The observance of the festival has changed markedly over the centuries, and while there may now be a Santa Claus, Virginia, there wasn’t always one.


I’m not going to go into the history of the jolly fat man in the red suit, fascinating though it is, but suffice it to say that what we now call Christmas because of its Christian connotations is a complex melding of ancient mid-winter festivals (evergreen boughs), Druidical nature worship (mistletoe) and celebrations to reinforce family values (I’ll be Home for Christmas).


Your readers know Christmas today, but you can engage them by placing your characters into a Christmas setting in previous times and letting your readers see what life was like. Rituals are an important element in society and should not be overlooked.


So if it seems viable, give your characters a Christmas celebration - or an Easter one, or anything else, come to that. If your story is set in medieval Europe you could describe how, during the Christmas season, children caught and killed wrens which were believed to be the kings of winter because they did not migrate but remained no matter how cold the weather became. The dead birds were dressed in tiny robes with little crowns on their heads and placed in velvet-lined boxes (if such luxury could be afforded) and taken from house to house where the children would receive presents of food or small amounts of money. The wren also had religious significance based on the story of St. Steven who, trapped in the furze (thorn bushes) was saved from starvation by wrens who brought him tiny morsels of food in their beaks until he was rescued. We are all familiar with “Trick or Treat” at Halloween (another festival with pre-Christian origins) but the following verse was sung at Christmas when children came to a house to ask for a gift. Before receiving anything, however, they had to show their wren which symbolized the death of winter and the eventual triumph of spring - the triumph of light over dark and hood over evil. This practice became part of Christmas, although it dares from pre-Christian winter celebrations.


The wren, the wren is king of the birds,

Since Steven’s gown was caught in the furze.

Although he is little his family is great,

We pray you good people to give us a treat.


So it is at this time of year we remember how important celebrations, rituals and festivals are to humankind, and how useful they are to writers of historical fiction as we build worlds for our characters to inhabit. As noted, linking the present to the past by referring to festivals still observed today is an excellent vehicle for engaging and interesting your readers, as well as enhancing the description of the social fabric of times past. Whether it’s Christmas, Halloween, the Ch’ing Ming Festival in China or the Lunar New Year celebrations in Asia, they can all be used to good effect.


But check it out first. Beware the dreaded anachronism. For example, Santa Claus didn’t exist in the eighteenth century (although his precursors did); people did not exchange Christmas cards until the 1850s (the custom originated in England), and Bonfire Night did not take place until after 1606 when Guy Fawkes tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament.


Happy Holidays,