Now that Serpent Heart is up, my attention turns back to final revisions for Sand of Bone.
Celebrations—when, how, and why—are fantastic worldbuilding tools that can give depth to a culture, move the plot, and reveal character. The longevity of the celebrations, and how the celebrations have evolved over the years, inform us of the culture’s values. Whether characters partake in, shun, or are indifferent to the festivals tells us how well characters are integrated into the larger culture.
In the desert and delta of SheyKhala, where the upcoming novel Sand of Bone takes place, festivals mark the turning of seasons primarily through focus on close kin, neighbors, and the greater community.
The year ends and begins with the Feast of Kin — the midwinter festival of family. Though jokes are often made about the different ways one could serve one’s family members at a feast, the festival is critical for maintaining good will among kinship groups as they head into that time of year when close quarters and limited food supplies can raise tensions. For the days leading up to the feast, family members do favors for one another, and the most secret favors are considered to be the ones performed with the deepest love and respect. The feast itself, though, is geared toward indulging the children in all possible ways. Grandparents say the focus on children ensures young adults consider carefully what their nighttime cold-weather activities might engender.
Promise Days happen in the spring, when the seasonal rains provide the low desert just enough moisture to coax short and spiky grass to cover the sands between brush that blooms but once a year. The notion of promise-keeping is incorporated into the river levels as well, since the season’s rains promise to flood the delta once the water rushes down from the high desert. It’s also the time of year consorts decide to make new vows, renew their existing ones, or part ways. It’s one of two festivals that include the ceremony to brand women and men as full Blades in service to the ruling Velshaan. (The other branding takes place during Shades.)
In midsummer, everyone takes part in Givings, which the cold-hearted and tight-fisted call the Mis-givings. Able-bodied folk provide service and work for the neighbors, preferably those less fortunate. (As you can imagine, there can be a snark-fest in determining who among one’s competing ‘friends’ is more or less fortunate.) In larger settlements, Givings is the day set aside for civic duties such as field maintenance, road and wall repair, and sewage care. Moreover, every person must pass their evening meal to someone less fortunate, and will not eat unless someone more fortunate takes pity on them. The two groups most likely to go without an evening meal are the middling poor and the ruling Velshaan bloodkin. In fact, the Velshaan absolutely refuse to eat on Givings Day because they have only the gods above them. Why the gods don’t provide the Velshaan with their own meals is a subject of speculation only among those who wish to live a life of hard labor in Salt Hold.
Lastly, the welcome cooling of autumn leads up to Shades — three days and nights of honoring and remembering the dead, and (supposedly) spiritual visits from dead ancestors or notable figures. It’s understood ghosts don’t really show up every year to everybody, just like we understand Santa Claus doesn’t really visit every child’s home on Christmas Eve. Shades is instead a time to reflect on past losses. It’s considered wise to think of what you’d say to loved ones if you were a mere ghost able to communicate but once a year, and wiser still to say those things while living. But, as with our Christmas traditions, parents take advantage of the festival to instill behaviors and beliefs in their children. Parents will sometimes leave small notes or symbolic gifts from “ghosts” for children to find, and the final night of Shades is marked by costumed folk going door-to-door masquerading as prominent figures from SheyKhala’s history dispensing advice and warnings.
In addition to the large festivals, smaller celebrations are more often either observed within families or smaller groups, or confined to certain occupations and such. There are feasts on the Dark Moon, when the nightsighted folk see the undimmed beauty of the stars. (It’s a favorite among young people looking for excuses to spend the night away from family.) More ritualistic celebrations occur around the first pressing of olives for oil, the training of horses, the welcoming of new Blades into the ranks, and thanksgivings for salt and iron.
In more recent years, remembrances for the Woes have been added to the festival calendar. Officially, they are held to acknowledge the losses and destruction caused when the Velshaan warred among themselves. But they are really intended to both remind the people of what power the Velshaan can (or, more accurately, could once) wield, and remind the Velshaan bloodkin of what fate they could meet if they stand against the wishes of their family.
How much of this will make it into the final version of Sand of Bone? Only bits and pieces mentioned mostly in passing. Half the story takes place in settings removed from the usual cultural constructs. The sequel, Breath of Stone, more tightly entwines the cycle of celebration and remembrance, and the third (yet unnamed) novel downright depends upon them to trigger… well, to trigger happenings. (Shh, can’t tell!)
But I know the festivals are there — why some people choose to ignore them, why others anticipate them, and why still others will seek ways to use them. It’s another valuable tool in this writer’s Swiss Army Knife.