Holiday Traditions

The winter holiday comes upon us quickly. It's a time of preparation, celebration, and tradition. What traditions do you observe? What traditions have you given up? What is "normal" for our culture, and how do we justify our deviations from that cultural norm?

Earth has as many holiday traditions as families. Some decorate fir trees with burning candles, while some celebrate a religious figure's birth at midsummer with dances and drink. Some jump over bonfires to invite the sun's return, while some dig through their closets for the tackiest in winter-themed cardigans. Some burn candles in the windows, while some share mulled cider and spiked egg nog with friends and family. Some make their yearly visit to church, while some play games for a week straight. Your mileage may vary.

These little traditions that persist without question lend authenticity to experience. What better way to bring a game world alive than to pepper it with these cultural hallmarks?

Start with a tradition from our world, then start asking why it began. For example...

The Boar's Head Feast
The boar's head, as I understand,
Is the rarest dish in all this land,
Which thus bedeck'd with a gay garland
Let us servire cantico.
    - The Boar's Head Carol, verse 2
Men have hunted boar since ancient times for meat, to prevent crop damage, and for the challenge of it, as an aggressive boar can cause a massive damage with a single charge. Ancient Romans regarded a boar hunt as a struggle between light (humanity) and darkness (the nocturnal, dark-haired boar). Christianity changed this symbolism into the Christ child's triumph over sin. The Norse sacrificed a boar to Freyr at midwinter to bring back the sun, which probably influenced the timing of this Christmas tradition.

Boar hunting tested a warrior's courage in medieval times, as the rules of the hunt often required killing a wounded boar with nothing more than a dagger. The boar spear had a cross bar to prevent a boar from impaling itself deeper on the spear in an attempt to gore its attacker before it died. If you managed to kill a boar, you would earn a reputation as a brave warrior, and you would ensure your family would have enough boar meat to last the winter. I'd feast to that; wouldn't you?

The "modern" tradition reportedly started at Queen's College, when a resourceful student on his way to Midnight Mass survived a wild boar attack by choking the beast to death with a metal-bound tome of Aristotle's works. The ensuing celebration involved cooking and eating the boar with great pomp, including singing many traditional carols. Last week I attended a Boar's Head performance in a church in Worcester, which involved a processional, singing, dancing, and costumes.

This one tradition has evolved from a test of bravery, through a midwinter pagan sacrifice, to the triumph of learning over brutality, to a "traditional" musical performance.

Going Off-World
Holiday traditions on Earth depend on the changing seasons. What would happen on a different world? Asked another way, would Martians celebrate Christmas? If so, when? Do colonists cling to the out-of-context traditions of their homeworld, or do they embrace their current world and find new rhythms?

What traditions would come about if winter and summer were each 7 growing seasons long? Would culture have evolved into cities or would the people remain nomadic to follow game and growing seasons around the planet? Would they have temporary palaces which could easily break down for transport?

Happy holidays. From space.
What happens when a year is made up of 157 days of 47 hours each? What would a binary star system mean for the seasons? Or a Ringworld where sundials are worthless since the sun always shines straight down on you no matter where you go?

A little forethought into planetary mechanics can tell you what the seasons would be like. The seasons provide a framework for a culture's cycles, including feasts, fasting, and festivals. Remember culture doesn't remain static, and traditions change and evolve over time. What traditions do your grandparents miss most?

By the same token, what traditions would a PC's grandparent miss in your game world? To use a permutation of the Boar's Head Feast, did they hunt boar to extinction and now need to celebrate with lamb instead? Does that anger the old warriors and make them feel less than human since they can't share the boar's strength any more? Does not eating the courage contained in the boar's heart and liver make them fear more? Do they feel shame and anger for eating a coward's meat?

On Story and Setting
Each tradition contains the story of how it began and evolved, giving you a rich history and cultural identity to draw from when building your own stories at the table. By continually asking "Why?" you can create history for the holidays in your game world. You can also create secrets, kept by societies and sects as a shadow history for your PCs to uncover.

What better gift to give than a deeper setting for your players to explore and help create?

Whether you celebrate Yule or Christmas, Kwanzaa or Midwinter, I hope you and yours stay happy and safe this holiday season.


  1. This is fantastic. Thank you so much for putting it together.

    I've added it to my Best Reads of the Week series I've been working on. You can find the link here:


  2. Thanks! I'm glad you like it. I consider it an honor to be mentioned on one of your Best Reads of the Week.

    And thanks for compiling that weekly list. I used to put together the Weekly Assembly (http://blogs.gamerassembly.net/category/weekly-assembly/) , so I have a pretty good idea of how much work you're putting into it.