Friday, December 6, 2019

Festivals and Holidays for Fantasy Writers

Article by Ty Hulse
Something we often forget in the modern era is that most festivals of the past were built around the belief that spirits and deities were physically present at the celebration. Halloween, Easter, and Christmas were times when spirits both good and bad were unleashed upon the world.

Given this there are two important aspects to many holidays in a fantasy world;

1-Holidays and festivals are built around the desires of spirits, fairies, and deities. What people do during them depends on the personality of these beings. What's more the spirits want humans to celebrate and have fun on these holidays. Indeed, they'll punish those who work on them, who don't eat, drink and make merry as it were. They also punish those who force their workers to work these holidays.

2-Historically many holidays were both a celebration and a way to deal with the fact that so many potentially dangerous creatures were roaming the land. So they were a happy and scary time. People would leave offerings for the spirits to keep them calm, would travel in masks either to pacify them or scare them away, or sometimes would avoid going out all together.

Tschäggättä Festival in Switzerland, a sort of reverse haunted house
in which the monsters visit you. 

Types of Celebration

Although there are many different aspects to folk religious holidays I'm outlining some of the most common;

Dead come home or roam the world.
There was a typical belief that the spirits of the dead would return to the land of the living, often on multiple holidays of the year. During this time they would be provided with many of the comforts any living traveler would be given, such as warm beds, food, drink, etc.

These spirits of the dead could bring blessings to their loved ones, but they could also be dangerous, especially if not provided for. Many of them would also take part in "wild hunts." Lead by deities they would roam the countryside, hunting either for human victims or souls of evil spirits, depending on whether they were good or bad.

In some places there were very specific notions about these spirits, such as that the female fairies didn't want to be seen by men, so on certain holidays men would all stay in doors. In other places clean water was left out so that they could wash their children, or food was left on roof tops so that they could there, rather then coming into the house.

Feasts are an important part of fairy lore, as it was often believed that the spirits would share in feasts with the celebrating people. Often portions of sacrificed animals would be put out for the spirits to feast on, or placed into fires so that fire spirits could carry these away. Oatmeal, vodka, or other items might also be poured into the water for the spirits within.

What's important to understand, however, is that in most of these cases it was believed that the spirits wanted to take part in the feasts of humans, wanted to be a part of the community, even if they were invisible or hidden in some way. Though there are tales of them taking a much more direct part in such feasts, in which people actually saw and spoke with them at the tables where they ate.

Topsy Turvy
The spirit world is a topsy turvy place, and the celebrations and holidays are often meant to be an equally topsy tuvey time, when serfs and slaves could tell their masters anything without repercussions. When many of the rules of morality went out the window. When men dressed as women and women as men. Twisting social conventions is an important part of many holidays. Often this was because it was believed that the world of the dead was the mirror opposite of the human world. In Rome the topsy turvy celebration was to remember a better time, before Jupiter had taken over, while in other places it was to honor freedom loving spirits.

In the province of South Tyrol, Northern Italy, there remains a chaotic, 
topsy turvey festival, filled with remnants of gender bending shamanism, 
I have a short discussion of this festival here.

Dances, plays, parades, and other performances were put on in honor of the visiting spirits and gods. In one Japanese festival a play was put on to honor Susanoo's battle to save their village from fire breathing dragons. In Greece plays and the Olympics were also ways of honoring the gods.

In some places people would dance with a scarecrow like figure, or bundles of sticks which they believed the spirit had possessed.

Mummering, or as we now call it "Trick Or Treating" was a part of many holidays, in many different places, though it's purpose could vary from place to place. Some times it was very much like caroling, in which the mummers would put on performances, singing, dancing, even plays would be done for the people of the home, and presumably at one time even the spirits who were visiting.

Other times the mummers would seek to scare away the spirits, for example, in Mari-El the men would go about dressed in animal costumes beating walls, fences, steps and women's clothing with switches in order to chase away evil spirits. While still other times the mummers would placate the spirits by dressing to honor them. The Mummers might also have been taking advantage of the fact that spirits demanded generosity, by begging from door to door.

Gift Giving/Luck Bringing
There were historically many gift givers and luck bringers, from animal spirits, to fairies who left money in shoes, to beings who promised to make a home wealthy and prosperous during the year., or house spirits who would give gifts to the children. The exact nature of these gift givers was highly variable from place to place and holiday. So have fun with the idea of gift givers. Think of many beautiful, or odd creatures that could bring gifts and luck to people during the holidays. 

Celebrations often involved numerous forms of divinations. Coins might be placed in the bottom of food, with those getting them being promised the best year. Around Christmas Russia girls would stand with their backs facing the bath house and their dresses pulled up over their heads. The spirit of the bathhouse would then either pinch or pat their bottoms, which would let them know if they would have good or bad luck through the next year. Others would dance in front of mirrors on Christmas in order to see the face of their future husbands, or bury something at the crossroads. Indeed there are so many ways of gaining divination from active spirits during the holidays that it would be impossible to fit all of them into a book.  

More Holidays then the modern era
There were no Saturdays off, or vacation days. Instead people often made up for this by having a dizzying array of holidays and ceremonies, some of which lasted for some time. The Twelve Days of Christmas, for example, was a real thing.

Examples of Celebrations

Kueca - Mari-El

A spring holiday which involves multiple days of celebration.

The first day involves preparing food and brewing beer as offerings to the spirits of the dead. Then people go to the bathhouses to bathe. When they are finished they leave food and everything the spirits need to bathe in the bathhouse so that they may bathe the next day.

The next day when the dead come out to the land of the living in order to bathe people may see them by sitting on the roof with their clothes inside out. On this day no one is allowed to work with their hands. They kick fodder for the animals with their feet, they don't light the oven, they don't even comb their hair. One of the few things they can do with their hands is place a spoon in the window for each family member, should one of these spoons fall, the person it represents will die within a year.

The food which was prepared beforehand is placed out in the home for the dead to share in with the family. The offerings for the dead and the deities which rule over them consist of; pancakes, bread, pies, eggs, etc. Just before the feast begins the people say prayers to their visiting 'guests,' aka, the spirits of the dead.

The next day a Juniper tree is brought into the home and lit on fire. The people then jump over this flame while asking the spirit of the fire (fire mother) to cleanse them of evil. More food is eaten in another feast of rooster, fish soup, bread, colored eggs. before which more prayers are said to the dead. Once more the spirits might take part in this.

Then the next day people go to the bath houses and bath with the spirits of the dead, while placing candles out for the lords of the underworld.

Finally on the last day they celebrate as a village, and the priests go from bath house to bath house saying prayers and throwing beer in the hearths.

Christmas - Austrian Alpine Villages

At Christmas time a goddess named Perchta, either appearing as a lady in white or a horrifying hag with an iron nose (two forms depending on her mood and purpose) would come, leading an army of the spirits of dead children (and in some places living children whose souls had left their bodies in their dreams). People would leave them food, and her gifts that were white (salt, eggs, flour, etc.).

People would also be expected to clean their homes and finish their spinning before Christmas, for Perchta would punish disorder and laziness, sometimes with an insane degree of ferocity, as one of her nicknames was "The Belly Slitter."

Though she was also generous to those who had been good. For girls who completed their tasks would get silver pennies, and villages would get blessings. In addition, children might get rewards for clean homes.

Equally important was her demand that people feast on Christmas, that they have fun, for those who did not could be subject to punishment as well. Servants, master, no matter their place in society they all feasted together in her honor.

Before Christmas day, young men of the village would dress up as both the beautiful and hideous. They would rush about the versions of her. They would rush about the village shouting for joy, ringing bells, and cracking whips, as a way of honoring her and celebrating the festival.

Perchta was also believed at times to hunt down evil spirits, with the spirits of the children in the form of dogs, goats, or fairy like beings they would search out evil vampire like beings, as well as other dark influences in the village.

Kusa - Mari-El (Summer Festival)

A sacrifice to the important deities in a sacred grove, this begins when the priests from multiple villages will at times meat to discus which gods should receive sacrifices for this ceremony, and which animals should be sacrificed to them, and which priest should do what for the ceremony. Money is then collected form the households to buy the animals for the sacrifices.

Animals are then chosen and cloth is tied around their neck, and the priest prays that the animal be acceptable to the deity it is meant for.

The priests assistants bake bread, pure maidens prepare mead, and evil spirits are exorsized from the village.

The morning of the ceremony the priests go into the grove, as the whole ceremony takes a week they will sleep in this grove, in a small hut built for them. Fires are kept burning the entire time.

A log is palced up by the sacrifice tree, with a candle wedged in a crack in the top. Fresh linden twigs are spread out and a white cloth is placed over these. Then the loaves of bread, along with bowls of mead are placed on these. Usually eight small loaves and one large one, though the number can vary. These are for the spirits that are in the grove.

The other villagers bathe outside the sacred grove in a brook, or in water warmed in pots near the grove. They also wash white clothes and drink tea while waiting for these to dry. When they are ready they change into them and enter the grove.

The sacrificial animal is tied to a long pole about ten feet from the fire. The priest holds an ax over a bowl of water and prays to the deity. An assistant pours molten pewter onto the ax plade which runs intot he bowl of water, and the priest observes how it solidifies to see if the diety is pleased with thanimal.

The priest appraoches the animal with a fire brand, and the assistant follows strking an knife against the ax three times.

The priest then touches the animal with the firebrand on the head, neck, and back.The priest takes the knife, goes to the tree and prays once more to the deiiy to accept the sacrifice.

He then circles the fire clockwise goes to the animal and prays again to the deity, all those present kneel and watch the animal. Water is poured over the animal until it shudders. When it at last does people rise to their feet thanking the deity. The feet of the animal are bound and it is laid on its side, head towards the tree, The animals throat is slit and the priest catches a few drops of the blood on a wooden spoon which is taken to the fire. Spoonfull after spoonful of the blood is taken to the fire. The animal is dressed out. Some of the animal is cooked for the diety and some for the people. While people wayt for the three or four hours for the feast they go outside the grove (except the priests who stay to do the work).

The people are called back into the grove, and they give offerings to pay for the ceremony (poor give less, rich more).

The priest then prays for blessings. He then speaks to the people, asking them to live good lives. Meat is thrown into the fire for the deity and everyone sits in a ciricle. First they eat porridge and mead, then the meat is distributed to them.

The priests will then stay behind to make further sacrifices over the course of the next few days under different trees for different deities.

Read More Fantasy Writing Prompts here

A half hour documentary on Japanese festivals. Discussing their purpose, history
and relation t the deities and magical world.