Festive in Fiction | Holiday Season Tropes

The official start to winter may not be until December 21, but the holiday season has a habit of creeping upon us so much sooner. Plenty of stores will have their Christmas decoration display set up right next to the Halloween products that haven't been sold out by the second week of October. Trailers for Christmas movies drop around the same time, as do new albums and books. Christmas carols seem to start playing on loop sooner every year.


It all lends itself to the idea of Hallogivingmas, or the blur of Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas flashing before our eyes.


As I've gotten older, I've developed an admittedly regrettable ambivalent outlook on the holiday season that is surely partially related to getting older among other things that have made it a difficult time of year for me, but there's something comforting in the tried-and-true tropes you'll find in wintry fiction. It's a spot of comfort and joy among the hustle and bustle.


Despite my feelings towards the holidays, winter is my favorite season and makes frequent appearances in my writing. Whether it's only for a few scenes or the backdrop for the entire story, there's something about a chill in the air that adds an element of warmth and coziness to writing. After all, it's the perfect time of year to curl up with a good book—especially when a favorite trope is sprinkled in.


Some of these are also great for other times of the year, but something about winter just makes them all the more special.


Sunshine and the Grump

This is a popular pairing in romance, and one I especially love in Christmastime romances.


It's your classic optimist and pessimist pair. One is bright and cheerful. The other has a more grouchy and grumpy disposition. Where one finds rainbows, the other sees storm clouds. This is a great foundation for witty banter, conflicts caused by butting heads, and a resolution that comes in finding a balance between the two personality types.


The holiday season comes with countless opportunities to play with this trope.

He brings her to the Christmas tree lighting downtown and loves the decorations and caroling, and all she can do is remark on how much it's costing the town to power the display. They go to a Christmas tree farm, and she's convinced artificial trees are better because they don't shed any needles all over the floor and don't need to be thrown out and replaced every year.


Somewhere, though, they strike up a sort of middle ground and find things that they can enjoy about the season together, especially when the mutual enjoyment is unexpected. She might admit to loving peppermint hot chocolate and how it reminds her of her late grandmother, and cafe dates become a regular thing for them. He might have a fear of heights but braves the ski lift after learning she skied competitively back in the day.


I love to see these kinds of characters work through their differences and fall in love along the way. When it happens in the winter, it's even more magical.


Holiday Homecomings

It's often said that there's no place like home for the holidays. Many folks travel to spend this time of year with family, which can be as hectic as it can be wholesome.

Characters coming back home after time away can be a terrific source of inspiration for your characters any time of year. Your character might just be on a break from or recently graduated from college, could have moved due to their career, was provoked by drama within their family or community, or just decided to hit the road—potentially with no intention of looking back.


But then they find themselves returning home.


This can be for a number of reasons ranging from events like a celebrating birthday, being part of a bridal party, a high school reunion, or attending a funeral, moments of significance like the loss of a job or a divorce, or just needing to regroup. As you may expect, the holiday season can also have your character returning home.


I love this setup in fiction because it can come with unfinished business and grudges needing to be worked out, a twist on the fish-out-of-water feeling because of how much has changed since your character left home (or how much they've changed while things have stayed the same), reassessing the past, making amends, rebuilding relationships, rekindling an old flame, and reconnecting with their roots.


Homecomings in fiction can also lay the foundation for other romance tropes. Your character might develop feelings for the guy who lived down the street from them growing up in a take on the boy-next-door, one or more parties may have experienced a glow-up and be nearly unrecognizable, find themselves falling for a friend's sibling, forced proximity enabled by a small town in which your characters are constantly running into each other, and far too many more to list in one place.


Many readers enjoy dreaming of far-off places and adventures abroad.


Sometimes, though, there's no place like home for a little romance.


The Gift of the Magi

The Christmas season has an abundance of stories to tell. There are the holiday's origins in The Bible, literary classics like Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol, more recent favorites like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman.


One of my favorites is The Gift of the Magi.


If you're unfamiliar, The Gift of the Magi was first published by O. Henry and is about a married couple's hopes of buying the perfect gift for one another despite not having much money. The wife has long, beautiful hair that she ultimately sells to a hairdresser in order to buy a chain for her husband's treasured pocket watch. Meanwhile, the husband sells his watch in order to buy his wife a set of ornamental hair combs. Their sacrifices render each gift unable to be used, for the wife's hair is now too short for the combs and the husband no longer has the watch the chain was purchased for, but each spouse realizes the lengths to which the other person was willing to go to show their love—something truly priceless.

It's a lesson about sentimentality and how love is the greatest gifts of all.


The Gift of the Magi has been adapted a number of times in various media, and with good reason. Especially nowadays, where there is so much pressure placed on buying the perfect gift for loved ones, having that reminder of love's importance and how it's the thought that counts never fails to tug at my heartstrings.


Newer renditions might change the two gifts for a modern audience, but the heart of the story has endured for over a century now, and it's one I love to see incorporated in fiction.


Secret Santa

On a similar note to The Gift of the Magi, other forms of gift-giving are also fun to write.


Secret Santa is just one of many variations, common in large groups like a workplace, where each participant is given one person to shop for by drawing a name out of a hat or other form of random selection. Sometimes there may be an additional game of guessing who gave you the gift you received.


I love both sides of Secret Santa.


There's the fun of trying to figure out what your recipient would want without giving away that you're the one shopping for them. Trying to suss out info without drawing suspicion is such a challenge. I'll admit to a little eavesdropping here and there for just that purpose! It's so thrilling to find the perfect thing for them and watch their reaction as they unwrap it.


On the flipside, it's also fun to receive a gift during Secret Santa. The excitement of not knowing what you've been given is doubled by not knowing who's giving it. I know a few people who will try to guess who their Santa is beforehand, but I do my best to not spoil the surprise for myself.


With so many games out there like White Elephant exchanges and Pass the Present, you've got a ton of options with this one. Your characters may even invent their own, like a D&D group using a 20-sided die to determine who's buying for who.

There are so many ways to have fun with this one—and its aftermath.


After all, not all gifts are perfect, so maybe the gift the character ends up with is something they'll be desperate to donate or re-gift without offending the giver. Someone gets called out for breaking the rules and going way over or under the $30 limit. Or your character might take it as an opportunity to make a move on their crush and attempt to swap names with other participants so they "have" to buy something for that individual. There might also be some teaming up and bouncing ideas off one another.


I could also see Secret Santa as a route for enemies-to-lovers because it requires them to get to know one another. Say the character is supposed to shop for a coworker they don't get along with. They've had a few bitter interactions and try to stay out of each other's way. All of a sudden, the character is learning about their coworker's interests and hobbies and might come to realize they're not as different as it once seemed.


I love being involved with Secret Santa. As far as fiction goes, you may find that the game is only the beginning for your characters' relationship.


Crashing Into You

As a particularly clumsy person, there's something charming about characters tripping over their own feet, accidentally spilling drinks, having a habit of knocking stuff over, and causing the mini disasters only a klutz can cause. It's easy to see myself in them, which tends to draw me more to them than the perfect, flawless ilk.


From getting tangled up in a string of lights, messy attempts at wrapping a present that just ends with them throwing everything into a gift bag and covering it all with tissue paper, and falling in a snowbank, the holiday season is full of potential blunders your uncoordinated characters can induce.

Winter sports make for many endearing moments.


Your characters might go on an ice skating date and crash into each other several times. Maybe you've got a character who snowboards competitively and the other can barely navigate the bunny slope. Someone who's never gone skiing and finds themselves tumbling down the hill might get a helping hand from the rather attractive ski instructor.


Snowy sports can be a wonderful base for meet-cutes and awkward dates, and there's something genuinely easy to relate to in them. Yes, it can be enjoyable to read about a professional athlete crushing the competition, but how many of us are actually pros? Chances are you're like me and bound to walk away from the slopes with more bruises than one can count and be incredibly sore the next day.

Romances in which the pro falls for someone who's regularly falling over have me falling for the couple at its center.


Nontraditional Traditions

The holiday season is full of traditions.


Some are widely known, like lighting a candle for each night of Hanukkah or attending Midnight Mass.


Then there are those traditions that are a little less formal.


My mom always said it's not Christmas until the kindergartners sing, referring to the annual school concerts.


On The Goldbergs, the titular family is Jewish and is shown going out for Chinese food on Christmas Day.


In Japan, it's common to have KFC for your Christmas dinner because of a 1974 marketing campaign as explained in this article from CNN.


Your character might engage in the chaos of Black Friday or sneak in some Cyber Monday shopping at work.


In my family, I always grew up eating donuts for breakfast on New Year's Day, one of which has to be a powdered jelly donut. I'm not 100% sure of the exact origins of this one, but I can't imagine January 1st without a powdered jelly donut. My grandmother also considered bad luck to go into a new year without some money in your pocket, so it's tradition to tuck a dollar bill into your pocket or your bra as midnight draws near.


I love seeing new takes on old traditions in fiction just as much as longstanding ones. These not only establish a sense of familiarity for your readers because they might be aware of these activities or have even participated in them, but can also bring a surprising twist when things go in a different direction that makes the tradition unique.


Kisses at Midnight and Under the Mistletoe

Speaking of traditions, there are a couple which are especially prominent in romance that can have your characters locking lips.


The first is when two characters encounter each other under a bit of mistletoe.


Traditionally, this means they have to kiss. It's a seasonal take on the forced proximity trope many writers love to employ. Some characters might even walk around with a bit of mistletoe to hold over their significant other's head to encourage a quick kiss or get one of those headbands that has the leaves dangling from the tip of a wire.


There's the kiss at midnight on New Year's Eve. Whether your characters are out at a party or at home, it's common for people to share a kiss when ringing in the new year.


Both scenarios may come with a touch of awkwardness and could lead to a friendly hug, a peck on the cheek, or a full-on French kiss.

There's hardly anything wrong with including either or both of these scenarios in your fiction, but I do advise a little bit of caution in doing so. While mistletoe and New Year's Eve can open up opportunities for your love interests to have their first kiss or confess their feelings for one another, they can also cause problems if both parties aren't up for it. Who would want to be accosted in a doorway or start their new year off by being forced into snogging someone they're not into because tradition says so?


As I tend to say when it comes to writing romance, consent is key.

This time of year is a popular setting for many stories. Between the holidays, traditions, chilly weather, and seasonal activities, it's no wonder that wintertime stories give readers the warm and fuzzies.

These are only a few of my favorite wintry tropes to include in fiction. There are so many others to explore in your writing, and maybe even twist into something new.

If you're writing a wintertime story, these tropes can inspire a flurry of ideas--and the flutter of your reader's heart.



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