Ever noticed how a lot of YA books have a Prom or a Winter Formal or some such thing? It's immediately understood by readers to be a big event, a rite of passage, or at least a social ritual where certain expected things happen. If you want to be different, though, or if you write something other than YA, another easy way to get that reader identity wrapped up in your story is...
Personally, I love reading about holidays in books. For one thing, usually something plot-related happens during the holidays. In a paranormal book, holidays can be particularly exciting if there's some ancient ceremony that has to take place in order to save/destroy the world or bind all faeries to your will... or something.
In contemporary fiction, I love to read about how different people celebrate the holidays so differently. It immediately makes the characters more real to me, because traditions are part of everyone's life. Even if I've never celebrated Rosh Hashanah, I know it's a Jewish holiday and would love to see a character going through the tradition/meaning of it.
Holidays are something we all just understand. We know there are meaningful holidays and those that have lost meaning in our culture and are just for fun... like pinching on St. Patty's day if someone isn't wearing green. There are also holidays from the homeland which people in America may never have heard of... or maybe your father made up a holiday involving a Festivus pole. Your story will be completely unique.
Personal story time: My mother didn't like the spookifyzation of Halloween and the growing danger of trick-or-treating. As a family, we developed our own tradition, which turned into a second Christmas. We called it Santa-Claus-Christmas or Halloween-Christmas. We dressed up, passed out candy canes to trick-or-treaters and told them "Merry Christmas!"
You should have seen their faces.
We watched Christmas classics like Miracle on 34th St. or It's a Wonderful Life. We popped popcorn and ate junk food (a rarity in my healthy household). And best of all, we got one gift each from "Santa."
If I were a character in your book, you could have a heyday with something like this. How did I feel about doing something so different? Well, it was cool. It was something my weird, kooky family did that made us closer even as it made us different. As I got older (teen years), I started to want parties with friends instead of the traditional staying in with my family. But when I left home for college, I missed the family tradition. Halloween became a downer for me, kind of like New Year's Eve (which is the stupidest, shortest holiday in existence). I developed my own personal tradition of crappy things happening to me on Halloween.
Now that I have kids, we've created our own traditions, including dressing up to a theme and decorating pumpkins. I'm not sure what traditions we'll have in the future or how our current ones will change, but the traditions of my past definitely affected my future traditions with my kids. Family time trumps the spookiness.
I have a friend whose family has a traditional prank war on Halloween, which definitely fits the commercial meaning of the holiday and sounds fun, if a bit horrifying. Unleash your imagination. There are endless possibilities for holiday fun/chaos.
Whether your main character reveres and anticipates a holiday or almost completely forgets it, including holidays in your fiction can draw readers into your reality. For fantasy or paranormal, it's an anchoring element. Even if nothing else about your paranormal creature is familiar, if she blows out candles on her birthday, I can relate. I feel anchored.
Halloween is coming up, and I've seen some great spooky scenes in books and TV based around this holiday. Costume parties have provided a golden opportunity for the villain's infiltration, and haunted houses instantly create an atmosphere of confusion and chaos.
Christmas presents are a prime time for characterization through gift-giving. Does he give her a pre-wrapped gift he bought on Christmas Eve? Or is his gift her favorite candy wrapped up in something she collects? Or maybe he's given her a family heirloom/talisman to protect her from the supernatural villain, and she just thinks he's being romantic. Yeah, I've been watching The Vampire Diaries on Netflix.
Think of the traditions you've observed in your own life, or the ones you've heard about from co-workers during a one-up-this-awful-holiday-story session.
How do you celebrate the holidays? Or what's the best holiday story you've ever heard?
Let's create a mini-wiki for writers to draw from. :)
P.S. Mystery Agent contest launches November 1st. Be prepared with a twitter-length pitch PLUS the first 500 words of your completed MS. Entries will be capped at 50. Genres include: Picture book-YA/Teen: commercial fiction, romance (contemporary and historical), historical fiction, multi-cultural fiction, paranormal, sci-fi/fantasy in YA or romance only, dark novels and fairy-tale/legend spin-offs