Thanksgiving is upon us!
It’s time to let out my belt, pick some side dishes, and prepare to cook. Tomorrow will involve turkey–one of the few times a year I dedicate a whole day to planning, preparing, chopping, cooking, and devouring a meal. Even more, it’s one of the few times that I get to stand side by side with relatives and work together on a tasty project. I enjoy baking up a chicken many nights, but that’s so much less impressive in size and scope than the big day. For me, Thanksgiving is a rare opportunity to dig into all of those fabulous sides. I often manage to cook up a meat and a side on weeknights or weekends, but the sheer variety of special side dishes is never again matched during the year.
In Your World
Thanksgiving is a great analogue of harvest festivals in your game worlds. Almost every game world (and many real cultures) feature an equivalent to Thanksgiving sometime after the crop is in.
To make your world’s harvest festival vibrant, you’ll want to both borrow and twist your Thanksgiving feast and bring it into your world.
Borrow Your harvest festival can borrow whole cloth a lot of the joy that Thanksgiving offers in the modern era. Here are a few things that you can borrow whole cloth:
- The sheer bounty of freshly harvested produce
- Meat! (Emphasize how special eating meat is to your peasants)
- The anticipation as each contribution is brought to the table
- The smells of well cooked food, rich sauces, and pleasant lassitude sweeping over sated feasters
- Conversations about cooking, prices of food, what’s dear this year
- Bright decorations of autumn leaves and cornucopias of plenty
Adapt Some things that are a common part of our holiday might take some modification–or a deeper consideration of its feasibility–before they’re incorporated. Often, though, there’s not a lot of alteration required to bring these elements into your game.
- Extended family: bring in aunts, grandparents, and cousins from nearby towns
- Travel: A feast day makes an excellent reason for travel to be interrupted (perhaps the inns close for the harvest celebrations, or the way stations aren’t manned)
- Dispute: Friends who strike sparks and sensibly avoid each other most of the year are trapped at the same table, forced to be polite. How long can they keep it up?
- Excess: Hard cider or other liquor circulates, loosening tongues and breaking down resolve
- Gossip and firebrands: borrow inspiration from your crazy grandpa’s rants, or how everyone tiptoes around certain subjects when Aunt Martha’s in the room.
Beyond the Obvious
A lot of our traditions are focused on food and translate easily to any harvest festival. But others have little to do with food. Twisting them can make your harvest celebration quite unique.
- Emphasis on honored ancestors: Puritan hats and buckled shoes were a big part of school decorations for the holiday. What unusual symbols are invoked in memory of your culture’s ancestors, perhaps in idealized or tangential form?
- Who is throwing the feast? If the feast is hosted by the lord (as an obligation, say), what is kept for the lord’s table and what is shared throughout the room can tell you quite a bit about your host.
- A Holiday Season? Does your culture feature a variation on black Friday’s shopping madness?
- Scholarly Exams: Do your students’ studies end soon after the feast? Is there testing or some frightening judgment? Conversely–does this feast mark the transition of children from field hand to student, until spring demands their labor again?
Other Articles Touching on Food
I’ve long been interested in food and gaming. Back in 2009, I wrote What’s for Dinner?, a celebration of food and its impact on game groups and game worlds.
John Arcadian’s Wildly Different Culture Settings touches on how to make travel to new places feel foreign; perfect for adventurers away from home at the holidays.
Similarly, Kurt’s Going Abroad touches on the dark side of drinking the water… and too much rum.
Historical Food and Holidays discusses food in various cultures (particularly contrasting medieval and Roman eras), and notes that both late Roman and Medieval cultures had a lot of holidays– more than 60 in medieval times, and double that in the late Roman era. The role of spices and variety crop up as well.
On the darker side of things (because isn’t that what really drives good games?) imagine the conquerors of your players’ homeland insist on imposing a fictional version of their own harvest festival. For instance, your players’ ancestors were mostly wiped out during plague and conquest brought on by an invading nation, yet the descendants of those conquerors have created a fictional version of the story where everyone worked together and got along to create a better land.
That could be a very dark twist; I could see it working particularly well in Glorantha. (Yes, I got understand your deeper point also.)
Though there is also the danger that as soon as the players are informed of this holiday they will begin referring to it as “Festivus”.
Your links to the other articles appear to be dead.
Trace, you should see them working now. Something temporary on the backend was changing our url structure, but it should be fixed now.
Thanks for fixing it so quickly!
But why, WHY must Americans insist that all holiday feasts must start in the early afternoon for Crom’s sake?
Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving, all seem to involve me being bullied into arriving somewhere inconvenient at some ungodly hour so I can eat an overlarge late lunch, a meal I often don’t eat at all.
Harvest festivals were, in days gone by, affairs that took place after the harvest was in, a bloody great party thrown by the farmer to reward the hired help (“dayworkers” in today’s parlance) for putting in 100%, and took place in the evening because everyone was busy harvesting when the sun was up. In the UK this manually-intensive harvest was the norm up to the end of WWII. My mum remembers taking part in them.
So hold the in-game feast at night. After all, chances are there isn’t any football and no TV to watch it on anyway in your fantasy world.
Our game’s currently in midsummer (approximately early August), so we recently had a midsummer/first fruits festival. I went the route of making it a multi-day festival, something that used to be much more common than present.
I called the holiday Pelor’s Days, made it five days long starting soon after the summer solstice and involving large bonfires burning through the night alongside nightly feasts and a harvest celebration of early crops like berries, corn, onions, lettuce, etc. Additionally, a lot of inns/hostels/yards were packed, due to local farmers staying in the settlement near their lord’s keep/manor for the duration of the festivities, making it difficult for the group to find a cheap bed without camping in the village yard (thankfully due to the weather, no tents were needed).