Winter’s here, so what better time to give you five tips for worldbuilding winter traditions? Let’s take a look at how you can add traditions that feel like a natural part of your world!
1. How does your culture deal with the cold?
Before coming up with the details of the tradition, think about which cultural elements will influence it. For example, countries like Russia and Finland have a tradition called winter swimming, where they swim in water close to freezing temperatures. Their cultures are more used to the cold, so they embrace it with this tradition! But if the culture is not used to the cold, there will probably be bonfires or other traditions to keep warm.
And if you have non-human species, maybe they have natural ways of dealing with the cold. For example, they might hibernate during winter and so have very slow traditions, or maybe not at all! Or maybe they have have thick fur covering their bodies. In this case, anything that has to do with fire might not be as popular. Maybe instead of looking for warmth, they’ll look for light —after all, winter is the darkest season of the year.
2. Integrate your world’s religions and history!
Many traditions in our world have to do with religion. So take a look around the world to see what different religions do for winter!
Since we were talking about light in the previous section, let’s look at Diwali, a festivity celebrated by Hindus, Jains, and Sikhs. There are many traditions tied to this festival, but one of them is lighting up oil lamps inside and outside their houses!
Want one more example? Well, Hanukkah is another example of a light-based winter celebration! One of the central elements of this Jewish tradition is lighting the nine candles of a candelabrum (the menorah). It’s all about light!
So, when you’re worldbuilding winter traditions, make sure you look at which religious elements you could integrate with it. And remember that many current celebrations have been influenced by other religions too! For example, some traditions surrounding Christmas like the Yule log come from non-Christian traditions.
If you want your world’s history to feel more real, come up with a tradition from an old religion! That religion might no longer be alive, but some of its traditions might very well be! It’s a great way for your readers or players to notice details about history without exposition dumps. If you come up with details like these for your own traditions, your world will feel much more alive!
3. Think about conflict when worldbuilding winter traditions!
Conflict is important in any story, so if you can add some to your traditions, do it! Think about the origins of the tradition and how they could cause conflict.
If your tradition has religious origins, think about what other religions are there. There are several possibilities you can consider:
- A branch of the same religion with a different tradition.
- Minority religions, living in parallel with the dominant one.
- Another major religion with a different winter tradition.
- A non-religious celebration, promoted by an atheist counterculture.
A great real-life example of the first one is with Oliver Cromwell, who lived in the UK during the 17th century. He was a Puritan, and decided to ban several Christmas-related traditions because he found them too Catholic! From then on, for example, eating mince pies for Christmas was illegal.
If the celebration has historical origins, you have even more reasons to include conflict. Historical celebrations usually involve a country winning over another one —if the other country still exists, they likely won’t celebrate it! And if it doesn’t (it could now be a colony, or have been destroyed after a war) there will still be people who remember what happened. In this case, there probably won’t be an opposing celebration, but there will certainly be an opposing faction!
As always, look at our world for examples! There are many different winter traditions around the world: Christmas, Hanukkah, Yule, and many others. In current times, a conflict between these different traditions is not as common as in, say, the Middle Ages. But belief can cause wars, so go wild!
4. How is this tradition celebrated?
Time to think about the practical stuff! First, you need to pick a day (or days) for your tradition to happen. If it has historical origins, it’s easy, as it’ll probably happen on the anniversary of the event. But if it’s religious, it might not be as clear! Well, a good way to start is to think about the natural phenomena that happen every year. For example, one of the reasons Christmas is celebrated on the 25th of December is that it’s close to the winter solstice.
Then, you’ll need to think about the rituals involved in the tradition:
Gifts and family meetings!
If people don’t work during this celebration, it’s a good idea to add things like big family meetings or gift-giving traditions! In a world where most people are usually busy doing their own thing, these celebrations would be a great way for them to meet with their loved ones. Winter is a cold season, after all, so being together with other people in a warm place sounds like a plan!
Think about food…
Speaking of warm stuff, food is usually an important element of major traditions too! Since we’re working on worldbuilding winter traditions specifically, have a think about what hot food exists in your world. That’s a great opportunity to start working on your world’s gastronomy too!
…and don’t forget about religion!
Finally, remember that if the tradition is tied to a religion, there will be some kind of religious practice tied into it! This could simply be going to a temple for prayer, but there are many more options! People might have to spend a certain amount of days fasting, or maybe they have to perform a sacrifice to the winter gods. Find a way to integrate the religious rituals with the rest of the world, and your readers will remember it!
5. Think about social class when worldbuilding winter traditions
Unfortunately, not everyone can celebrate with the same comfort. But as unfortunate as this is in the real world, it’s a detail you can add to your world to make it feel more real. First, make a list of everything people do for this tradition that is not free. Then, start coming up with cheap and expensive versions of everything on the list. Let’s look at some examples!
Remember the gift-giving tradition we mentioned in the last section? Well, making a gift requires resources. A rich person will be able to afford many gifts (or a single huge one), but a poor person might instead choose to make handmade gifts or just a card with good wishes. A similar thing happens with the food: the rich noble will probably have a ton of different traditional food on their table, while the poor worker will buy or cook the cheapest ones.
You could even come up with exclusive traditions for each social class. For example, rich people might see a celebration as an opportunity to show off their money. They can decorate their houses with lights and other objects that are expensive but otherwise useless!
Let’s do this!
Well, you should now have enough ideas to start worldbuilding winter traditions for your own setting! We’ve talked about cultural and religious influences, conflicts, rituals, and social classes. And I can assure you, these tips will make your tradition feel more natural to the world —whether you’re a GM or a writer! Ready for a prompt, then? Here you go!
Describe a winter tradition which exists within one culture of your world. What is celebrated, and what’s involved in the festivities?
So, go answer the prompt now, and check out other people’s answers to it too!
And if you haven’t yet, create your free World Anvil account to start writing!