The “holiday season” as it generally is known is upon us, with the approach of the year’s end, and that got me thinking about how often I’ve seen blatantly misplaced Christmas cheer plonked down thoughtlessly into Sci-Fi, Historical and Fantasy settings where it had absolutely no place being. Fanfiction is especially inclined to fall – or, rather, enthusiastically dive – into this particular pit trap.
You see, as an avid world-builder, it drives me absolutely up the freaking wall to see someone build – or explore, in fanfiction’s case – a beautifully designed, or researched, world and then completely ruin it by shoehorning in a fairly recent Christian tradition – or the trappings thereof by a different name – with no regard for the fact that it does not fit there.
Now, I’m sure that somebody will skim the title of this post or the content and assume I’m out to destroy their holiday. I’m not. I’m just sick and tired of seeing people who claim to enjoy another world where things are different assuming that because Christmas seems universal from their fairly mono-cultural viewpoint; that it must belong everywhere no matter what …and then force-feeding the holiday season to some poor other-world which they claimed they loved because it was different. Heck, the holiday season isn’t even universal on Modern Earth, let alone some other planet or reality (and history, damn it)!
1. If you are writing fanfiction, even seasonal fic exchanges don’t excuse breaking the canon to have Christmas. First step: check if the creator/right’s holder of the fandom you want to write in has issued a fanwork ban. If they have, back away from the keyboard with your hands in the air and remind yourself that just because it’s “Art” and “intellectual property” doesn’t make it any less property than say …the patent for a fridge design or medicine, or an architectural plan, or a painting or piece of music. Free reuse (such as fanfiction) is a privilege not a right. But I digress. There are canons that allow, or don’t disallow, fanwork where it could be believable to have the Holiday Season: I’ll blink when I see the Starship Enterprise throw a Xmas party, but given the ship is primarily human-manned and on a tub out in dull space, I could accept it. What I couldn’t accept is if it went on to show Andorians, Vulcans, and Klingons all having near-identical holidays at the same time of year. That stinks of authorial self-centeredness. Hell, just look at the differences between British and American Christmas celebrations, or Aussie and Kiwi vs Northern Hemisphere, or English speaking vs Continental Europe and you’ll see how absurd it is to assume aliens from other planets would have the same holidays! (See points 2&3.) Then there’s other canons which do allow fanfiction just plain don’t suit the idea of the holiday season at all. The most blatantly inappropriate is in canons set before Christianity existed. I’d like to keep giving examples here, but I’m afraid I have to go forcefully introduce my forehead to my desk now.
2. “Christmas” isn’t even the same in every country that does celebrate it. To give you some idea of how non-universal Christmas is, here’s a quick list of everything I (being a third generation atheist who has lived in countries that do Christmas my whole life) understand about the matter; a tree must be sacrificed and covered in tinsel and tangled lighting wires so that presents can be stored without being tripped over, shops close on the twenty-something-th of December before having several days of sales, people take it as an excuse to be horrid to people who don’t celebrate the Christian holiday, Santa drinks Coca-Cola, reindeer break gravity, snow is required even during summer, presents are exchanged along with biting and passive-aggressive commentary among family members, pudding gets bought and never eaten, something about goodwill to all that’s never practised, and some kid who might not even have existed was born with a glowing egg on his head in a barn a long, long time ago. The point I’m making is that you and your neighbours – assuming you or they celebrate anything Xmasy – may be celebrating completely differently, never mind how much more it will change city to city and country to country.
If it sounds like I know absolutely nothing and that shouldn’t be possible, the explanation is the same as the point I’m making: my family celebrate a secularised version of the Dutch celebration of Sinterklaas, which is basically the Dutch version of Christmas but which is significantly different enough that an author cannot, or – more accurately – should not assume they can be exactly mapped on to each other. Sinterklaas (Sinter = Saint, Klaas = Klaus/Nicolas) is in early December, many adults give each other presents inside of things called “surprises”, which basically means you make something (a model or just a box with “this is a chicken” written on it) and a matching poem to give them a friendly-tease about something amusing they did/which happened to them earlier in the year. Sinterklaas is a tall, thin, man originally from Turkey, but who comes to the Netherlands by boat from Spain and then rides around on a horse, assisted by white chimney sweeps with their faces covered in black soot – this has lately caused a political correctness gone batty scandal by people who call it “blackface and racist”, while apparently ignoring the whitewashing of Sinterklaas himself, and so now some people paint their faces blue and claim that without chimneys the helpers are coming through water-based radiators. And that’s just one example of how a seemingly identical celebration just is not the same when you leave your own culture. The farther you go from the modern, English-speaking world the more you have to consider this. Could an elf or alien culture have a winter celebration about gift giving and caring for others? Sure. But it had better not look a damn thing like Christmas or your audience will rightly call foul.
3. Consider where your culture is, consider CAREFULLY. See what you can find wrong with this scenario; Our rag-tag band of heroes enter the secret Elven society of DefinitelyNotALothlórienRipOff,NoSir and find them in the process of preparing for their Yule celebration …by cutting down pine trees, which belong to a different eco-sphere, and putting them up in their homes which are in trees. Okay, how about this: a sci-fi story in which ice-powered blue-skinned aliens on their ice planet celebrate the first snowfall by riding around on reindeer as all the leaves fall from the trees and HOLD IT RIGHT THERE. Ignoring for the moment the ice-powers (suspiciously fantastical for a sci-fi!) and the fact that habitable planets which are completely one ecosphere are unlikely to impossible: why are these people celebrating a first snowfall when they presumably live in ice and snow year round? For that matter, how the heck do they even have trees if everything else you’ve described implies a single ecosphere of tundra at best? Are you trying to make me use multiple exclamation marks like a crazy person?!? Okay, one last try, a civilization from a Northern, temperate and often snowy in winter society colonise a southern hemisphere tropical to arid continent and insist on transporting their winter (now summer) celebration of lights to the same point in the year because it’s the birth date of someone famous. So they make a joke of it by changing the lyrics of all the carols to represent the ridiculous climate change and make it a celebration of beach-going over a celebration of lights that would never be seen because summer nights are too short. Of the three examples: the first two are cases of really poorly thought through world building and the last is Australia. An Aussie-like situation could work in fiction, but you’d need to make obvious the backstory of a semi-altered tradition from somewhere it had made sense, else your readers will be bothered. (In New Zealand the disparity is slightly less obvious because of the climate difference, but it’s still silly to put up lights given that it’ll be at least nine or ten before they’re actually going to be comparatively bright enough to make an impression.)
4. Consider whether beliefs actually have space for such a celebration: Why the heck would your Klingons, sorry, your Proud and Honourable Alien Warrior Race celebrate a holiday about peace to everyone? Would a fantasy culture which values truth above everything really have a celebration wherein a major event is lying to children about a fat home invader who leaves them gifts? Why would Jewish, or Muslim, or Buddhist, or Wiccan, or any other non-Christian religion feel the need to celebrate the birth of the guy from all the curse words? Would a native people being invaded by Christians in the past have really given a damn about that holiday beyond the fact that all the invaders take the day off to go sit in a conveniently wooden building marked with a cross and therefore easy to identify and set alight? If people live somewhere that is so cold that winter is a time of terrible hardship, why would they waste resources celebrating in the middle with a feast? They’d be more likely to celebrate when it’s over. For that matter: what exactly are they celebrating? Is it light or some historical-religious event? The changing of the year? Why would the year change part way through a season and not at the end of one? Is it peace on Earth? Even if they live in a time before that was even a concept? What use is a festival of lights for nocturnal beings? Question everything.
5. Accept that peace on Earth and goodwill to all people doesn’t require the trappings of Christmas: This leads back to something I said earlier, about how the whole peace on Earth thing is always yammered on about but never shown in real behaviour, because everyone’s too busy screaming at poor shop attendants for “ruining their Christmas” because they ran out of some material item, and screaming at non-Christians for their beliefs, and screaming at everyone who’s even slightly tolerant of not demanding that everyone celebrate one religion’s holiday for trying to “ruin Christmas”. Peace on Earth and goodwill to all are noble goals. They aren’t reliant on presents and trees, on people saying “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays”, or stocking one religion’s holiday paraphernalia and not another’s. If the “spirit of Christmas” is supposed to be kindness to others then maybe writers could focus on that bit instead of the trappings when they world-build and the rest of the world could, you know, actually try it out for a change.
…I’ve GOT to start making these things shorter. I know they’re rants, but damn, I talk too much.