Nearly every district in the Shine and Wild Empire, the country with which most of my planned Shine Cycle is concerned, has some sort of fair or festival every year. Today’s post takes a look at these festivals, some common features, and some of the differences between them.
First, scheduling: The festivals for the largest and most important districts are, with a few exceptions (more about which in a moment), scheduled soon after the harvest of some crop or other has finished. Climate is another consideration (hotter districts generally hold their district fairs in cooler seasons). And they are never held on one of the high feasts of the Christian calendar (which you can read about in the post about calendars in the Empire). But the main constraint is that no district wants to have its Fair too close to the time of another local festival or one of the most important regional or national festivals.
Each Fair is, primarily, a gathering of many of the citizens of the district, from the surrounding areas, and from throughout the Empire. Because of this, it is one of the centers of the year for the district, not quite as “big” as a High Feast, the Emperor’s Birthday, Unification Day, or one of the important national holidays (which the larger Fairs are sometimes timed to coincide with), but nearly approaching that level of importance to the local economy.
When I say “one of the centers of the year,” I don’t mean just for leisure. Courts often hear their most difficult or controversial cases at the annual Fair, so unbiased juries can be found. (As I mentioned in the post about courts a jury is, as much as possible, made up of the defendant’s true peers, his or her neighbors or those of the same profession, but in some cases no local jury could be expected to give a fair hearing of a defense, or—rarely—the district is so roused that it would most likely acquit without considering the facts. And there are some cases where for some reason the judges don’t feel qualified. In such cases, the Fair is a natural choice, since vast numbers of people “from all walks of life,” including judges from neighboring and distant districts, will be there.)
Guilds, and other groups, also make the Fair a center of their year, holding their annual competitions to test their members (and, usually, challengers from the public) in the skills they emphasize. These are often athletic events (especially those sponsored by groups like a Farmer’s Council), but not always. Large districts’ fairs often include tournaments, contests of arms. And larger districts—those consisting of several smaller districts, on up to provinces and beyond—tend to hold their Fairs later in the season so that the competitions there can serve as “next rounds” for the winners in the smaller fairs.
Similarly, any schools often hold annual tests at a local Fair, to publicly prove that no student is “coasting by” without being held up to any real standard. To avoid instructors “teaching to the test” and students learning only the details of the subject matter that will be on the test, some schools allow local experts and members of the public to ask impromptu questions of the students.
A fair always includes exhibitions of work, from prize vegetables and livestock to baked goods to textiles. In established categories there are usually prizes awarded to “the best” in the district, but in any case the products are usually sold, making the Fair a high point of the local economy. The large number of potential buyers, and the recent harvest (making many farmers, and those whose goods and services they buy, somewhat “flush with cash”), often lead to profitable sales for the artists, craftsmen, and other goods producers.
Local—and traveling—merchants also make good profits because large numbers of visitors need food, tents, soap, and countless other “sundries” that are either difficult to bring from home or are often forgotten. And then there are trinkets and souvenirs, both those locally made to sell to tourists as mementos of their visit and those brought in by traveling salesmen to catch the eye of locals. But because of the culture of thrift, most peddlers emphasize items that are useful rather than merely beautiful or commemorative (though those that are beautiful as well as useful are well prized).
Because so many people gather there anyway, widely-diffused families and groups of friends often arrange to reunite at a local major Fair. So the grounds are usually full of colorful tents, often with picturesque identifying banners waving in the breeze.
While nearly every district has a Fair, even the most urban, a Fair is a primarily rural affair. A rural district will designate a large central field (often one that is communally owned pasture-land) as the District Fairgrounds; an urban district will do the same, but choose one near but well outside the city. Weeks before the Fair begins, any needed temporary structures will be put up, campsites of various sizes will be surveyed and marked, and roads will be drawn. For the most major Fairs, all of this is permanent rather than temporary, with latrines, tournament fields, roads, and lodgings all built to last rather than built to take down and restore to their prior state.
With this surveying that is normally done for all but the smallest festivals, the Imperial government sends teams of surveyors from Fair to Fair each year. They are given a day or two at each Fair to enjoy themselves, but for the rest of the time until their departure they are responsible for ensuring that the government’s maps of the district are still accurate, and for reporting any ill-maintained roads, dilapidated government buildings, and the like. And the periodic census is sometimes (about every other time) mostly taken in a similar manner: sending teams on the circuit of District Fairs, and having them count the citizens and visitors (with a mage to ensure the truth of the answer to the question “have you already been counted?”).
Given the importance of music in the Empire, for nearly the entire duration of nearly any Fair, it’s rare to be ever more than a few minutes out of earshot of some formal or informal gathering of musicians for most of the day and night. And then there are the music festivals, a few additional opportunities for bards and other music enthusiasts to gather and share in the joy of music. And similarly, other “interest groups” often hold regular festivals at otherwise-unused fairgrounds, though these are somewhat rare because of the vastness of the Empire.
While most Fairs are primarily attended by the inhabitants of the host district and its neighbors, there are some who make the rounds of every major Fair and many lesser festivals, some making the rounds just one year, others making their life thus on the road year after year—itinerant musicians, peddlers, tinkers, and others. With the great variety in climate in the Empire (and its allied neighbors) the part of the year with no fairs or festivals of any kind is surprisingly brief, and the Empire is prosperous enough to make it possible for such people to make a good profit from this life. There are even those who avoid the Major Fairs and instead serve the local fairs that are unfortunate enough to take place at the same time as a regional or national festival.
There is one main and notable exception to the general rule that each district (at whatever level) have one District Fair, and to the general rule that when possible this Fair is held soon after harvest: the Imperial Fairs. One is held quite late in the year, after the last major harvest of the year. But the other is held in fairly early spring, essentially as soon as the climate permits travel throughout nearly the whole Empire. Each is somewhat longer than most Fairs; the spring Imperial Fair stretches as long as it does partly to end with the Emperor’s Birthday celebrations. There are two Imperial Fairs for several reasons; there are enough judicial appeals and petitions to more than fill the time, but it’s mostly that the Spring Fair is the first major Fair, while the Autumn Fair (which is so late in autumn as to be almost misnamed) is the last major Fair other than a few in the hottest districts. The Spring Fair is mostly given over to exhibitions of the winter’s work by the Empire’s guilds and foremost artists, the public yearly tests of the students of the Academy, the College of Bards, and other internationally-renowned schools, and exhibitions rather than contests of skill, while the Autumn Fair is most known for the Imperial Championships in various martial, athletic, and other events.