From fluffy holiday AUs to whole stories centering around the magic of the holiday season to character arcs revolving around changed relationships with the holidays (hello Scrooge), the holidays are a favorite of writers all over the world.
But there’s more than just the candy cane Christmas spirit or the giddy, hopeful New Years. Even within Christmas and New Years, the traditions and food vary all over the world, and bringing hints of cultural heritage into these celebrations can set your story apart from other holiday tales and bring something new to the table.
Spanning from December 16 to January 1st, Kwanzaa is an African-American holiday created by activist Maulana Karenga in 1996 as a pan-African celebration of African culture. Karenga said it was created with the intention of giving Black people “an alternative to the existing holiday of Christmas” as well as “an opportunity to celebrate themselves and their history, rather than simply imitate the practice of the dominant society.”
The name Kwanzaa derives from the Swahili phrase matunda ya kwanza, meaning "first fruits,” modeled after the southern solstice in December/January and the Zulu festival Umkhosi Wokweshwama which celebrated the Zulu peoples’ annual harvest.
Kwanzaa has symbolic seven letters (thus the extra ‘a’) to reflect it’s seven principles. Each day of Kwanzaa is dedicated to one of the seven principles:
Celebration may include putting seven candles (often in the colors of the Pan-African flag) in a candleholder alongside the Kikombe cha Umoja, or unity cup on top of a mat. Crops may also be placed on the mat as a reminder of the African harvest holidays Kwanzaa was inspired from.
Kwanzaa is a celebration of Black heritage, togetherness, and success in America, a nation that oppressed its African-American population for a long time and is just as much a time of reflection and reevaluation of community and support as it is of celebration.
Three Kings Day
Also known as Epiphany, it ends the 12 days of Christmas on January 6th and celebrates the day the three wise men from the Bible first saw Baby Jesus and brought him gifts.
This day is celebrated differently all over the world. Spain celebrates with parades commemorating the three wise mens’ journey. Children also may receive their Christmas presents on this day in Spain and some Latin American countries, where instead of Santa, it’s the three wise men giving the gifts. Italy replaces the three wise men with Befana–a witch, who brings children sweets and presents on Epiphany.
Bulgaria, Greece, and Russia have traditions of going for a swim on Epiphany, with the Greek Orthodox Australians celebrating the Blessing of the Waters around this time. In Istanbul, participants dive into the icy water to retrieve a wooden cross thrown in by a priest.
Mexico as well as much of the southeastern region of the US celebrate with a baby figurine baked into a cake known as a King Cake. In New Orleans, the person that gets the piece with the baby has to host next year’s Mardi Gras party.
Having both been part of this tradition through a friend’s family and written it into a character, I can say that the King’s Cake tradition is so lovely to write about and see, and it is a pity that fun traditions like this from around the world aren’t as prevalent in our reading and writing.
Lunar New Year
Each of the 15 days of the Lunar New Year celebration has a significance, with the eve being the day family traditionally get together for an annual reunion dinner, which often features a hot pot and the exchanging of red packets with money in an amount that reflects good luck. Before the celebration period, it is customary to clean the home to sweep away bad luck. However, cleaning during the New Year period is said to sweep away good luck and is forbidden. The public holiday period is a seven-day break for schools, but some parts of China may close for the full 15.
While Chinese New Year is best known, the Lunar New Year is celebrated in many other nations with varying practices. In Singapore, the custom is to exchange mandarin oranges to relatives and friends as well as exchanging money in a tradition similar to China’s red pockets.
No matter where the celebration is happening or what practices are involved, the Lunar New Year is a time of honoring both ancestors and elders and bringing in good luck for the family.
Eid translates to “festival,” or feast,” in English. There are two Eids, Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha, occurring May 2-3 and July 9-10 in 2022, respectively.
Eid al-Fitr happens at the end of Ramadan, a 30 day fast which is a time of introspection, gratefulness, charity, and family. The three-day Eid al-Fitr celebration often involves a special charity donation as worshippers pray and get together to feast. Eid al-Fitr celebrates the end of a time of self-control of
Eid al-Adha happens at the end of hajj, a time for many Muslims to visit the city Mecca, a holy place exclusive to Muslims. This is the tenth day of the final month of the Islamic Lunar Calendar. If accessible, some Muslims partake in the tradition of butchering a pig, keeping only a third for themselves. Another third goes to a friend or neighbor, with the final third going to a family in need.
Eid al-Adha is celebrated as a time of sacrifice and a willingness to give. The slaughtering of an animal is meant to represent the Prophet Ibrahim’s willingness to sacrifice for his Lord. Prophet Ibrahim sacrifices his son because Allah told him to. Allah allows Prophet Ibrahim to sacrifice a ram instead of Ismail, his son.
No matter what sort of story you’re writing, it is good to include a mix of cultures and traditions. Knowing about these can result in memorable celebrations for high fantasy or a more well-rounded low fantasy world.
is a high school student in New Jersey. They like (in no particular order) books, music, science, history, running, and (of course) writing and are always up to learn something new! Find them on Instagram at @writing_stoot.