Worldbuilding, or: Thanksgiving Makes No Sense!

Truth is stranger than fiction.

Today is the holiday of Thanksgiving in the United States, so, as on July 4, I figured I’d take a brief time out to talk about something holiday-related.

Specifically, worldbuilding.

In science fiction and fantasy, worldbuilding can be a huge part of what we do as writers. I’ve lived in several different countries now, and one of the things that I found myself having to explain (and have explained to me) was holidays. And one of the holidays that has not reached cultural penetration everywhere else and that was probably hardest to explain to people is Thanksgiving.

In Canada it wasn’t too bad, because Canadians also have Thanksgiving — it’s just back in October. But in Japan, hoo boy. I didn’t realize how much cultural understanding was wrapped up in the concept of Thanksgiving until I tried to explain what (and when!) it is. As such:

  • It moves around, and is always a Thursday — a little befuddling already.

  • But then there’s the concept of Thanksgiving weekend, and then, good Lord, Black Friday, and…

  • It has a historical origin related to something a good number of Americans find extremely problematic and horrific, namely, the genocide perpetrated against Native Americans.

  • Even so, most Americans associate the concept of Thanksgiving primarily with food and family, which is a pretty complicated cultural dissonance.

  • There are some traditional Thanksgiving staple foods that everyone thinks of as being absolutely culturally equivalent to the holiday, even if they do something different themselves. If I say “turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce” in a word game, by the second word of that someone is going to be shouting out “Thanksgiving!”

  • It’s more associated with family than a lot of holidays, to the point where people will try to make sure everyone has “somewhere to go” on Thanksgiving.

  • Yet it’s also associated with fighting with your family in a way almost no other holiday is, to the extent that you can make shorthand jokes about looming political disagreements at Thanksgiving.

  • It’s a holiday that isn’t religiously-affiliated but is instead country-affiliated, the way Independence Day is.

  • Football. The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Food comas. Actually using it as a day to express thanks for people and things in your life. So many small things that many people do and most other Americans will nod along with and understand if we hear someone else mention them.

  • And because our Thanksgiving is late in the year, it’s associated with kicking off the “holiday season.” Oh, and again, Black Friday.

Etcetera. There’s so much packed into the concept of “Thanksgiving” that I found it pretty hard to answer questions from non-US friends. Every time I mentioned another thing about it, it seemed to generate more confusion. It was difficult for me even to answer the question “What is Thanksgiving celebrating?” in less than a sentence, and every time I tried to explain the holiday to a friend in Japan it spiraled out into this lengthy conversation as they kept asking more questions about it. But to those of us raised in the States, it’s all baked in there, since we grew up tracing hand turkeys in elementary school or dressing up as Pilgrims.

So how does this relate to writing? Well, for me, explaining Thanksgiving was one of those things that made me much more aware of my cultural “defaults,” and how many questions and explanations can be necessary to wrap one’s head around a cultural tradition if you haven’t grown up with it. How much a thing that feels natural within one cultural environment can suddenly become this stumbling mountain of “let me explain — no there is too much; let me sum up” in another.

And now, when I’m trying to create a holiday or other cultural tradition in a made-up world, I often think about Thanksgiving. I remember how surprising and complicated so many pieces of this real-world holiday are, and how we in the US all collectively understand it — usually without interrogating how dark or befuddling some of it is. If one of us were to create all this for a story, I think we’d start questioning ourselves — like my Japanese friends do — about whether it made any sense at all.

This is why reality can often be stranger than books. But thinking about the existence of American Thanksgiving makes me want to create my own fictional traditions with as many complexities and contradictions as I can.