With the beginning of the Rio Olympics dominating the news around the world, the sports themselves can often take a back seat to the pomp and circumstance. Each host nation uses the beginning of the Olympics to proudly display something about themselves to the world, in a celebration of culture and history, full of symbolism which can sometimes be arcane and opaque to outsiders (who can forget US viewers utter confusion at the NHS tribute and mistaking Isambard Kingdom Brunel for Abraham Lincoln back in 2012?). The traditions of the Olympics themselves are just as prominent, from the Parade of Nations and the Olympic Flame to the Olympic Torch relay (which we’ll all conveniently forget was devised by the Nazis for the 1936 Berlin games).

These kinds of ceremonies and traditions can add colour and culture to your fictional setting, imbuing a civilisation with a sense of history, belief and custom, and avoiding a dry, functional portrayal. What do your people celebrate, and what do their traditions say about them?

Vana braced for the impact as the fireball fell from the sky. It didn’t come, of course. It never came, since it was just a projection, but it was mega convincing. The fireball landed in the centre of Touchdown Plaza, just as it had centuries ago, illuminating the vast metal spire of Wanderer Tower. Vana smiled. This was where Xenia came in. Vana watched her sister’s school class burst from the ancient rocket’s base, throwing glitter as the original colonists had thrown seeds. Vana had done the same just a year before. She still kept the ornate glass glitter jar on her bedside table – though now it held hair clips. One of the boys from Xenia’s class ran towards Vana, the large seed held in his outstretched hand. This was her role this year. As the boy plunged his seed into the new planter, Vana lifted the old one, and began the long, steady walk to the Youth Garden.

Here we see what appears to be an annual ceremony. We learn from this ceremony alone that Vana’s home is a colony, first colonised by a craft called the Wanderer, which now stands as a civic building in the centre of the city. The ceremony emphasises growth and new life – signified by the ceremonial planting of seeds and the children, representing the future generations, who are involved in the ceremony.

Importantly, it is the symbolism used here which tells us something of the society we are in; they are forward-looking, as even their celebrations of history are performed with an eye to the future, growth and youth. They are proud of what they have achieved, particularly in terms of cultivating the new land, signified by their annual reminder of the beginning of their journey, and they have a great respect for the importance of plantlife and sustainability.

By changing this ceremony, we can keep the history of the civilisation exactly the way it is, but change the feel of the society and its attitudes completely.

Zech smiled as the shimmering boat flew into the centre of the city. The mages directed the image just as they had filled the sails of the original ship. The image erupted into a plume of white light, the Arcane Tower erupting from its centre. The long flags unfurled down its length to thunderous applause. As the drum beat began, the marching feet matched it. Hundreds of them, all in the the traditional smartly-pressed uniform as they carried the flags behind them. As they marched, the lighting changed from the red of Baeria’s soil to the bright white and blue swirls of Catran. Reaching the beds of plants around the edge of the square, they plunged the flags into the ground and led the crowd in a salute, as the band began the Minuet of Mankind.

Here we can see a similar celebration, celebrating a similar event. Both are colonies, celebrating their original founding, and the transformation of their home from a largely lifeless and uninhabited rock to a thriving, populated civilisation.

This ceremony, however, is much more martial, much more jingoistic. We see through use of the flags, the drums and the marching that we are celebrating a conquering here. A celebration of expansion of territory and the glory of a colonial power rather than the gentle celebration of growth and renewal we saw earlier.

What do your people celebrate, and what aspects of it do they emphasise? How might this manifest itself in their traditions and ceremonies, and what does it tell the reader about your civilisation and its priorities?