Many celebrate a birthday on the day they were born, but all birthdays in a given month could be officially the same day in an authoritarian regime that restricts and standardizes such events. An important religious day could affect this, especially if the god is believed to have come into existence that day; everyone is sharing a birthday with a god. We can make up other scenarios.
If we do this, people could have two birthdays: the actual day and the universal one. The former might be privately and quietly celebrated by family and friends; if the universal birthday is state sponsored, other celebrations may frowned upon. We can even use this to get our characters in trouble for celebrating their actual birthday.
There are other religious holidays that might be observed across multiple cultures, but only if that religion is prominent in all of them (think of major religions on Earth for inspiration). In a later chapter, we will look at creating religions and these events, but for each, we should decide how these impact culture. The simplest variant is that people take the day off from work to observe the holiday; a formal government, likely in SF, might sanction this so that people are paid that day. In a fantasy setting, this is less likely, as the concept of paid holidays might not exist.
Most of us look forward to holidays because we’re paid and get a day off, especially a three-day weekend. This is something that’ll be on the mind of characters in similar situations. Others may know that a day is coming up and expectations need to be met for prayer or family gatherings. Even characters who are off adventuring will be aware that they’re missing a holiday and loved ones might be wondering what happened to them. An exception would be when they’re so busy running for their lives that they not only forget about holidays but what day of the week it is. Still, can you remember the last time a character thought about a holiday in a story? Authors tend to ignore this altogether.
Some holidays are reserved for civil rights leaders who impacted culture, a political figure like a first president, the military (especially in a military junta), or even wizards if wizardry is commonly accepted. Major wars, disasters, or first contact with an alien species (that become allies) are potential holidays. More events were discussed in Creating Places (The Art of World Building, #2).
There may be several holidays, or even a season of them, that strongly impact the culture, like Thanksgiving in November through New Year’s Day in the United States. Retail has turned this into a major shopping opportunity, but themed movies and decorations abound, too. Such a scenario is arguably more likely in a modern or futuristic world than in fantasy, but we can still have sales of smaller magnitude at festivals. Some cities might be known for better festivals, causing widespread travel to reach them.
Some countries may refuse to acknowledge a holiday or ceremony for ideological reasons. An authoritarian regime is unlikely to appreciate people celebrating a holiday from a democratic country even on their own time, particularly if that holiday celebrates a political figure who pushed for greater rights. Conversely, those in a democracy are unlikely to appreciate someone celebrating a holiday from a regime that promotes civil rights violations, even if the celebration is tolerated due to something like freedom of speech laws.
Ceremonies are often religious in nature and we can leverage a religion we’ve created to invent them. Some ceremonies dominate a culture for weeks, such as Ramadan in Islam, but only if that faith is widespread or even state sponsored. People may plan in advance if a pilgrimage is needed, meaning this impacts them before and even after the ceremonial period.
If people have left this culture for another land where the ceremony isn’t acknowledged, they may return home for it, possibly meeting resistance to the idea. Their parents might have originated there and instilled the faith in them, though they’ve never returned; it’s still on their minds even if their current homeland ignores the ceremony/holiday. Imagine needing to take a day of vacation for Christmas day because your country doesn’t acknowledge it. Adding a small detail like this to a character’s thoughts can make our world look more believable.
When inventing ceremonies, decide how widespread they are and if everyone is aware of one due to unusual prevalence. Some of us might’ve heard of one but know nothing about it if it’s less practiced. The details of a ceremony only matter if we’re going to show it, and in this case, we don’t have to explain each moment. If we say anything, it’s often best revealed quickly as a character’s thoughts. Have them think about what each step means, such as consuming a liquid that represents a god’s blood, or food that equates to their benevolence, or kneeling to show deference and humility.
Festivals can be based on holidays, ceremonies, or the reasons those exist, but they can also be seasonal, such as a harvest festival, a spring one, or a solstice. These need fewer explanation. Festivals are easier to create in the sense of justification, but if we have little reason for inventing one, the details of what take place can be harder to imagine. Fortunately, we can leverage Earth festivals for ideas.
Sporting contests are common, whether these are light-hearted (such as bobbing for apples) or potentially deadly, like a joust. Races are particularly rousing if our characters gain something important by winning. Food and entertainment, whether plays, singing, or other contests are bound to occur. If we’re out of ideas, we can also visit a Renaissance Festival for inspiration. For those writing SF, just replace everything with modern equivalents. A race would be in space craft. Fighting against holograms might replace jousting. Games may employ technology.