Become A Seasonal Anthropologist: Holiday Writing Research

Craft, Creativity, Observation, Uncategorized / Saturday, December 23rd, 2017

By Christine Hennebury

Holidays are full of opportunities for us to play anthropologist and observe the culture we are participating in. We can choose to pay attention to the emotional, social, and sensory details of the season. That way we can bring vivid detail to our future writing.

I’m not suggesting that you spend your holiday season detached from the people around you. (unless you need to- see below*) However, if you take a few moments every now and then to take in the details of your surroundings, you can slow things down a little while gathering details for your work.

Bonus: Those few minutes spent observing can help you relax and enjoy your holiday a little more.  I won’t go so far as to use the dreaded ‘mindfulness’ label but a pause does help.


white background, with a yellow circle, black letters read Becoming a Seasonal Anthropologist: Holiday Writing Research

Here are a few ways you can practice your amateur anthropology during the next few days:

Use Your Senses

Every so often during holiday events, pause and take in the world around you. Use all of your senses!

Who is there? How do they sound? What sorts of things are being said?

What can you see? Are there any specific smells that signify this holiday for you?

Describe the taste of your dessert. Note how the kitchen chair feels under you.

These kind of immediate sensory details are what can help your readers feel like are they truly IN your story. Holiday gatherings are a great time to collect them.

Participant Observation

Anthropologists often immerse themselves in other cultural groups by using participant observation. They participate in rituals and activities so they can understand how it feels from an insider perspective. Participant observation makes their research (and their writing) vivid and ‘real.’

It might feel weird to think of it this way, but as writers, we kind of do the same thing. We use our experiences to make our stories come alive for our readers so they feel like they are participating, too.  If we put our participation observation skills into full practice during the holidays then we will have all of those experiences ready when we need them.

In addition to taking in the sensory details I mentioned above, take a few minutes to consider the rituals you are participating in. Notice what family dynamics you can see. How does everyone know what do to when? Where did your various traditions come from? What happens if something has to change?

If someone new is at your gathering, ask them if they need anything explained. Perhaps what seems ordinary to you is bizarre to an outside observer – that might make a good story.

Ask Questions

Start by asking yourself some questions.  Spend a few minutes thinking about how your family celebrates (or doesn’t celebrate) the season.

Why do you do things that way? How do you decide if things need to change? Who wants to uphold traditions? Whose job is it to do the work of upholding them?

What makes a successful holiday?

How can you reflect that sort of unspoken expectation in your writing?

Ask your family some questions, too. What comes to mind for them at this time of year?  Do they have stories about the various elements and artifacts (decorations, dishes, clothing) of your holiday?

Look at the Big Picture

You’ll think more clearly about the big picture once the holidays are over but it is good to consider the questions here and there even as you celebrate.

What do your family celebrations mean to you as a group? How do they help keep you connected? Do the holidays bring up old arguments or do they help you smooth them over, at least for the time you are together?

Take Notes

You might think that you will remember all of these newly-observed details but, unless you take notes, they will blend into a solid memory soon enough. Be sure to take some notes whenever you can – even if you have to text them to yourself!

If you can’t take notes in the moment, do something to fix a detail in your memory so it stands out from the general memory of the event.

Here’s an example of how to do that: I was out shopping with my son and my friend the other day when I suddenly remembered that my son wanted a rug for his room for Christmas but I couldn’t say it aloud because he was there. I couldn’t write it down because I was driving, so, I looked carefully at a street sign and said to my friend. ‘Remember that, as I passed Anderson Avenue, I wanted to remember a bad wig.’

It was a weird enough conversation that I remembered it clearly later. 

Make a point of sitting down with a notebook or computer regularly so you have a time set aside to recall these things.

Turning Observations Into Stories

Whether we write holiday stories, year-round stories, fiction or non-fiction, most of us depend on helping our readers connect to our ideas and characters. That connection thrives on immersive descriptions and vivid details.

If you take time this season to observe people, social situations, and interpersonal dynamics, you will have lots of material for building a solid relationship with your readers.

PS – Whether you are celebrating a holiday or just finishing up your year, I wish you ease and I wish you peace.  May you have just a little more fun that you were expecting. See you in 2018!

Please note:

*The holiday season can create a lot of pressure and it can stir up all kinds of emotional challenges. Please don’t put more pressure on yourself by thinking about how you *should* feel at any given time.

That said, if you struggle with the holidays, thinking of yourself as a seasonal anthropologist might help because you can create a little emotional distance whenever you need to. If you are there as an observer then you will have something to focus on besides any difficult dynamics.

If your struggle is beyond something a change in mindset will help, please reach out to a friend, a family member, or a professional. Be kind to yourself.

Christine Hennebury’s storytelling career began when she was four and her parents didn’t believe her tale about water shooting out of her nose onto the couch – they insisted that she had spilled bubble solution from the empty jar in her  hand. Luckily, her skills have improved since then. Christine makes up stories, shares stories, and coaches other people who are working on stories, in Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada. Find out more about her  at  or visit her on Facebook .

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