Christmas Special Including Festive Celebrations In Your Novel
It's Christmas!!!!! With the patron saint of December, Noddy Holder, screaming from radios across the UK for the past month, it's time to consider how to use festivals and holidays in your novel.
I will be taking a short break over the festive period, so this is an extra-long, bumper edition!
I've written a couple of books that feature Christmas and Easter. Note that these were not "Christmas Books", rather they were books where the action took place over the festive period. Writing books set over a public holiday opens narrative possibilities, but also imposes some restrictions that need to be considered.
You may also want to consider other holidays and festivals. Your characters may come from a background that routinely celebrate other traditions, both religious or secular. How do you to deal with these?
For the purposes of this article, I am going to assume that your novel is UK-based, with some references where appropriate to the US etc, where things may be different.
I'll look at other traditions later on, but given the date this is published, let's deal with the large, tinsel-covered elephant in the room first.
Christmas To celebrate or not to celebrate? The first question you should ask yourself is whether your character will be celebrating Christmas. Even if they are a Grinch, it's likely that most of the people around them will be celebrating. How does this affect your character? Is there a reason they don't celebrate? Do they resent others celebrating? Christmas may nominally be a Christian festival taking advantage of a pre-existing winter celebration, but in modern, multicultural Britain, it has long-since morphed into a mid-winter, family holiday, marked in some way by most people. Don't assume that just because a character is not a Christian that they ignore Christmas, the chances are they don't. After all, who doesn't enjoy a public holiday when the weather is miserable, where you and loved-ones are likely to be off work together, and there is an excuse to eat too much, party and watch TV all day? I've worked with Hindus, Muslims and non-Christians a lot over the years and everyone took part in the office Secret Santa and came to the Christmas meal. If your character has kids, then they are going to be just as keen to get free stuff off a jolly old fat bloke as anyone.
One thing you might consider is that police and other key workers will still need to provide the same service over the festive period, as they do on every other day of the year. In this case, non-Christians might sometimes be open to a bit of horse-trading regarding shift patterns. It's not uncommon for Muslim colleagues to work Christmas day in exchange for taking Eid off, for example.
How do your characters celebrate? The chances are that you have memories of childhood Christmases; traditions that developed over the years, making the festive period special. But the first time you celebrate Christmas with a partner's family you often realise that even if you are completely alike on every other level, their idea of Christmas may differ quite significantly from yours. Ask friends or co-workers about how they celebrate. Do they do something different? It was always a source of fascination to me that at our Anglo-Italian friends would turn-up to Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve wearing their Christmas presents. Their tradition was to open presents on Christmas Eve. Some European countries have a large meal on Christmas Eve. Followers of the Eastern Orthodox tradition celebrate Christmas on January the 7th, rather than December 25th. How would your characters celebrate?
In the UK and many Commonwealth countries, December the 26th is called Boxing Day and is also a public holiday; it's quite common to visit family and friends. Canadians celebrate it but the US doesn't. Some European countries treat it as a second Christmas day. Don't forget to allow for this when planning how the story unfolds during this period - do your characters have the day off? Are they 'on call'?
Weather Despite the Hollywood and Victorian images of a white Christmas, most of the UK (especially down south) is typically grey, miserable and cold at Christmas, rather than blanketed in beautiful white snow. If you want to be historically accurate, you can find archived weather reports online. I once had a proof-reader comment that the summer I set a book in, rather than being hot and dry was actually rather wet. To avoid nit-picking by Amazon reviewers, if the weather is not crucial to the plot-line, why not look up the actual weather for the period in which your book is set, and write it into the story?
Joyous, domestic bliss and peace to all men? Contrary to what the supermarket Christmas adverts would have us believe, Christmas is not always a wondrous time spent with our loved ones. For many, it can be stressful and fraught with worry, not to mention expensive. The logistics of preparing a big, show-stopper meal for more people than usual, decisions on who to invite, who to visit and how to navigate separated or blended families are all sources of stress, but are potential goldmines for writers. What do you do when your niece neglects to mention that they are now vegan? Tragically, cases of domestic violence often spike over this period, especially where alcohol is involved. Does your character dread Christmas? Are they secretly relieved when their phone goes off in the middle of the Queen's speech, calling them out to a suspicious death? Or are they annoyed that they can't have a drink because they are on-call, and irritated when they have to miss Dr Who?
New Year's Eve In the UK, as with many other countries, Christmas celebrations often become merged with the upcoming public holiday on January 1st (and January 2nd in some countries). However, with Christmas and New Year's day falling on a different day of the week each year, you will need to check how that affects your story. What happens to the public holiday if Christmas day or New Year's Day fall over a weekend? Small details like that are easy to miss, especially if you move events in your story around to change the pace etc. As with Christmas, traditions also vary. The Scots famously celebrate Hogmanay, whilst in northern England 'first footing' as the new year is rung-in is common.
But what about other festivals or holidays? Hanukkah The eight day festival of lights takes place between late-November and late-December. Although a relatively minor festival (and NOT a Jewish Christmas), it's timing means that inevitably, some families take the opportunity to celebrate in a similar manner. Check the dates that Hanukkah is scheduled to fall in the year your book is set. Will your characters celebrate? Will they have a 'hybrid' Christmas/Hanukkah celebration?
There are also other Jewish Holidays, varying in significance. Is your character observant or secular? Again, check the dates that they are scheduled the year your book is set.
Easter and Passover The nature of the relationship between Christianity and Judaism is such that the two traditions often overlap. Unlike Christmas which occurs on a fixed date each year, the dates for Easter (and thus Lent and Holy Week) and Passover, are set by the lunar calendar, meaning they occur sometime within a period of roughly a month in the Northern Hemisphere's spring. Again, check your dates.
Ramadan and Eid If your characters are Muslim, they may observeRamadan, a month of fasting between the hours of sun-up and sun-down. Again, the date changes each year, as it is based on the Islamic calendar. When does Ramadan fall during your novel? What will the weather be like for those fasting? How long will the day be for them? To cope with a day without sustenance (including water, if it is safe to do so), Muslims have a pre-dawn meal, and then break their fast after sundown. This is often a social, family affair with rituals such as eating dates. How will this affect your character - might they be itching to get home to break the fast after a long shift?
At the end of Ramadan, Muslims celebrate the festival of Eid al-Fitr. There are many spiritual aspects to this festival, but it is also typically a day of celebration. It is a public holiday in many countries; in the UK it is not a holiday, but increasing numbers of organisations allow a day's leave. How a person celebrates will depend on their own cultural background, so in the UK, Muslims from different traditions or heritages will have their own way of marking the day. How would your Muslim character choose to celebrate? What is their heritage?
Muslims also celebrate a second festival, Eid al-Adha, roughly two months after Eid al-Fitr. This coincides with the annual Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca that all Muslims hope to accomplish at least once in their lifetime. How will your character mark Eid al-Adha?
Diwali A festival of lights, it is celebrated by Hindus, Jains and Sikhs. It takes place over five days and also moves each year, typically falling between mid-October and mid-November. The five days each have significance, with specific rituals, and it is usually seen as a major celebration. How it is celebrated will vary depending on your character's cultural and religious background, so it is worth doing your research. As it is a festival of light, fireworks are common, which in the UK is convenient as the festival typically falls close to bonfire night (see below).
Weekly Observances Does your character observe any regular religious practises? Muslims pray five times a day, but Friday is especially important, with visits to the Mosque. Christians traditionally regard Sunday as 'a day of rest'. Whilst the numbers attending church have fallen significantly, the remnants of the UK's nominally Christian heritage can be seen in reduced trading times on Sundays and restrictions on alcohol etc (these vary between the four nations, so do your research!). The Jewish sabbath falls between sun-down on Friday and sun-down on Saturday, and for the most observant they cannot work or travel in that time (with quite strict interpretations of what constitutes work). How observant is your character? Do they follow these rules in their daily lives?
Non-religious public holidays or popular celebrations Thanksgiving. I am including this after finding out that some Americans don't realise that this (and July the fourth) are not celebrated in the UK! In America, Thanksgiving is at least as important (if not more so) than Christmas in the UK, and in fact the traditional Turkey dinner is remarkably similar to that celebrated by many British people on Christmas day. In the United States, Thanksgiving falls on the fourth Thursday in November. In Canada, it is celebrated on the second Monday in October.
And whilst we're on the subject, Mother's day is also celebrated on different days in the UK and the US.
Public Holidays or celebrations Check the calendar to see when public holidays (bank holidays) fall. Do closed businesses cause problems for your main character? Don't forget that bank holidays can vary between the home nations. What about other celebrations? Halloween is becoming increasingly popular in the UK. It isn't a public holiday, but traditions such as fancy dress parties and trick or treating are becoming more common. November the 5th (bonfire night) marks the foiling of Guy Fawke's plot to blow-up the Houses of Parliament in 1605. Combined with Diwali, the setting off of fireworks can now last throughout much of October and November. Does this cause problems for your character? Are they sleep-deprived after being kept awake by late-night revellers or howling pets?
And finally, consider the dates of school holidays - this may have an impact on your character if they are a parent, or have a partner who is a teacher. DCI Warren Jones' wife, Susan, is a biology teacher. Depending on when the book is set, Susan may be off school.
Well thank you if you've read all of this! Hopefully it will tide you over until the new year, when I will start writing again.
As always, feel free to comment or share here or on social media.
Have a great Christmas, however you choose to celebrate it, and see you in 2021!