Reality Makes the Best Fantasy: Winter Holidays


Everyone needs a pick me up in the winter. Regardless of whether your winter weather is terribly cold or just a bit chilly, there comes a day when the sun shines for the least amount of time, plunging us diurnal creatures into dark for most of the day. Meteorological differences aside, astronomically, we’re left in the dark. And sometimes that makes people sad.

Enter Winter Holidays! Before those days grow bitterly cold or wet, many holidays, festivals and observances exist to draw people together, celebrate and get the blood pumping. Feasts are prepared, lights are lit, sacrifices and merriment are made. For many countries and cultures, Winter Solstice is followed by the New Year, signaling that yes, everyone is ready to start over, can we be done with the lack of light already?

Winter Holidays revolve around a variety of stories and traditions. Many deities are said to have been born around the Winter Solstice, among them Mithras, Sol Invictus, Jesus, and Dionysus. Stories of miracles give people hope, such as the Hanukkah miracle of the oil lasting eight days instead of only one. Other holidays focus on being with family members, gathering together or at least letting them know you’re alive and well through mail or sent tokens. For many it is the turn of the tide of a great battle, between the light and the dark, life and death, the Holly and the Oak, the old and the new. Japanese and Chinese New Year, Saturnalia, Kwanzaa, Yalda, and even more winter traditionsbrighten people’s days with their festivities, fun and food.

While people might try to conserve energy by staying indoors during the cold months, holidays bring people out and together. What do the PCs come across as they travel through the darkest part of the year?

For GMs

  • What is the weather like around the shortest days of the year?
  • What light related motifs do people use around this time of year? Candles? Lanterns? Lamps? Bonfires?
  • What is the focus of the winter holidays? Are they centered around mythological/religious figures? Family? Activity? Agriculture?
  • What are symbols of winter? Holly? Evergreens? Migrating animals?
  • What deities are associated with the winter? How are they honored?
  • What relationships are honored/turned upside down/recognized during the winter holidays? Are all people equals during the winter or do hierarchies still exist?
  • What foods are traditionally prepared and eaten?
  • Do the winter holidays exist as separate observances or are they all tied together in some way to make a long, crazy, holiday season?

Plot Hooks

  • The holiday tradition of sending small tokens (such as carved buttons or small wooden figurines) to loved ones so friends and family know you’re alive in the New Year is an important job. The PCs sign up to sort and deliver these items to spread the holiday spirit. How many items must they deliver? What are they delivering? What mode of transportation are they given? How long do they have to get the goods where they need to go? Why do they sign up to help in the first place?
  • As members of the local religion, the PCs are asked to organize a Solstice Festival for a town which has gone through many hardships this year in the hopes it will lift their spirits and bring good luck to the town. What traditions are crucial to observe? Are their any local traditions the PCs must find out about? How do the townspeople receive them? What resources are made available by the church? What do the people offer the PCs?
  • The PCs are sent to investigate the roots of the holiday tradition, travelling far to some of the oldest towns and villages in the region. Who has sent them on this fact finding mission? Why are they interested? How do the traditions of these villages differ from more urban/newer settlements and locales? What is the cause for the differences?
  • When the winter holiday centers around the birth of the ‘slayer of darkness, bringer of light,’ the town is troubled to find that flames are faltering, a light hard to hold during the darkest days. The PCs must investigate why all the flames are going out and try to get them lit. Why are the lights going out? Is there anything the PCs can do about it? What will happen to the townspeople if the lights don’t stay lit?
  • The PCs are in a foreign land on their New Year and must find the traditional foods and items eaten in their homeland in order to ensure a prosperous year in the future. What is their business in the foreign land and why are they there on the New Year? What foods and items must be procured? How strongly do they believe in the ceremonies and foods they are carrying out themselves and eating? What do they risk by not partaking in their traditions? How do other people react when they hear of their quest? Do they invite outsiders to observe their festivities?
  • Also, check out this awesome campaign idea by The Angry DM, entitled Oh Christmas Treant. When a druid gets sick of secularized and gaudy observances of Yule, nature lashes out. There is even a poem, which is quite awesome and an illustration which is also lovely. Definitely check it out.

For PCs

  • How does winter make you feel? What is your favorite thing to do on a winter day?
  • What winter holidays do you observe? How do you celebrate? Does the rest of the population celebrate the same holidays? Or are yours particular to your beliefs/upbringing?
  • Do you try to make it home for the holidays if that is the tradition? Do you celebrate with family or friends?
  • If you hear someone is to be alone on a winter holiday, would you leave them be or try to coax them from their home to join in the revelry?
  • Are you knowledgeable of other traditions’ winter celebrations? Or do you just stick to your own and what you know?

If nothing else, the holidays do make the time fly by. We’re almost to December! What say you? What does your game do when it’s put in the cold and dark?

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