On an idle whim over the weekend, I picked up Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, and sure as a curious teenager is drawn to the opportunity to wander around someone else’s thoughts in a Pensieve, I found myself reading all the way through the series. I’ll have some more extended thoughts on certain elements of the series, particularly cross-species relations, after we return from the holidays. But given the time of year, I wanted to linger on one aspect of J.K. Rowling’s series: the importance of Christmas.
The wizarding world of which Harry Potter learns that he is a member on his eleventh birthday is a notably secular place. There are wizards who seem to serve in officiant capacities at important occasions like weddings and funerals, but what we hear of those proceedings suggests a humanist focus rather than a divine one. We never hear a wizard articulate any sort of theological framework, or even profess a belief in a higher power, unless it’s Voldemort’s certainty in his own ability to transcend the limitations associated with human mortality. The Deathly Hallows quest does rely on the idea that Death exists in some form, but what we know of the belief system around the Hallows suggests that the focus of the quest is less on venerating Death than human capacity itself. And while there’s a broadly recognized category of Mysteries in the Harry Potter novels, from the arch and the veil in the Department of Mysteries, to the Kings Cross waystation where Harry and Dumbledore meet after Voldemort kills Harry in Deathly Hallows, these mysteries seem less sacred and more an extension of what we know to be both marvelous and possible in the wizarding world.
Despite the Harry Potter series’ general detachment from religious worship, two Muggle Christian holidays do seem to have made it onto at least the Hogwarts’ calendar. Christmas and Easter are the two scheduled breaks in the British wizarding school calendar. Easter is observed only as a spring break at the school, and there’s no evidence to suggest that it has greater significance outside of the school walls. But Christmas, though it’s celebrated as a secular holiday rather than a religious one, has enormous significance in both the structure of the Harry Potter novels, and the emotional life of Harry himself.
Harry’s birthday and the days leading up to it are the set-piece that begin every Harry Potter novel. It’s a choice that makes sense given that Voldemort’s attack on Harry’s family coincides with his first birthday, and that beginning the novels in the middle of the summer allow Rowling to set up Harry’s emotional state prior to his return to Hogwarts each year. And every year, Christmas provides an opportunity for Rowling to reaffirm some of the series’ themes.
Harry’s first Christmas at Hogwarts is also his first with real presents. The fact that he has gifts at all comes as something as a surprise to Harry, who is used to being deliberately excluded, and is prepared to watch his friends in Gryffindor unwrap their gifts and share their enjoyment. His aunt and uncle send him a fifty-pence piece, which is, as it turns out, the most generous material gift they’ll give him at any point in the series. But in his first significant step towards joining the Weasley family, Mrs. Weasley doesn’t forget the orphan who’s become friends with her son during their first term. She sends him a sweater, one of the first pieces of clothing Harry’s ever had that was intended for him, rather than passed along to him as a hand-me-down. And Mrs. Weasley sends Harry, who’s used to being deprived of food, treats as well. It’s one of the first times in Harry’s life that an adult has shown care not just for his basic well-being, but for his pleasure and enjoyment.
Christmas during Harry’s first year at Hogwarts is also the celebration during which Harry receives his father’s invisibility cloak. The gift appears to be from an anonymous donor, though of course we later learn that it’s from Dumbledore in the guise of a rather-less-portly Santa Claus. In the short term, the cloak is what enables Harry to find the Mirror of Erised, which gives him the gift of seeing his family, though the images also serve as a warning to Harry not to yearn after a past which is not recoverable to him. And throughout the rest of the series, the cloak will save Harry from trouble and even from mortal threats. In a small way, it’s an extension of the parental protection his parents were unable to provide him in life.
Beyond gift-giving, the celebration of Christmas in the Great Hall at Hogwarts also reaffirms Harry’s sense that the school is his first true home. Christmas dinner gives Harry an opportunity to see his teachers in a relaxed state–and in hilarious hats, thanks to the riches that lie inside wizard crackers. At table with them, and with increasing numbers of his friends as the years wear on, Harry gets the opportunity to be around adults who don’t see him as a problem or a potential embarrassment. These dinners in particular affirm that the Hogwarts teachers are, in fact, Harry’s first surrogate family.
This is not to say that all of Harry’s Christmases are easy, even if they mark his increasing intimacy with the people around him, and his growing ability to expect that there are people who love him and want to be generous to him (this will remain a weak spot of Harry’s when Dobby stops his letters and on other occasions when he believes he’s been forgotten). Christmas marks the occasion of Harry’s misadventures in dating during the Yule Ball during his fourth year, an event that teaches both him and Ron lessons about the importance of considering other people’s feelings.
And in Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix, Harry spends his first Christmas outside of Hogwarts with the Weasley family. This should be a purely happy occasion–it’s Harry’s first opportunity to spend Christmas, or any holiday, really, not just in a family setting, but with a family that loves him without reservation. But because Mr. Weasley has been attacked by Nagini in the Department of Mysteries, Harry proceeds to a rather different level of intimacy with the Weasleys. Instead of merely celebrating with them, Harry spends Christmas helping to support the family who’s been so good to him, and cheering up Mr. Weasley while he convalesces in St. Mungo’s.
One of those visits has another effect: Harry chances upon Neville Longbottom and his grandmother, who are visiting Neville’s parents, who have been tortured into insanity. It’s a touching and very sad glimpse of devotion, and of love given without any expectation that it can really be reciprocated in an equal way. Harry won’t learn the full extent of his connection with Neville for some time, but his fellow student’s conduct gives Harry a lesson in fortitude, kindness, and sacrifice that lingers with him for the remaining novels.
Finally, in Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows, when Harry and Hermione arrive in Godric’s Hollow after a series of discouragements and weighed down by the burden of a Horcrux, they’re surprised to discover that it’s Christmas Eve. But it’s hard to imagine that Harry could have truly come home to the town where he was born and where his parents died to save him on any other day.
In the previous six novels, Christmas has bound Harry up tightly to his substitute families and reaffirmed his love for the places that have become home, and not merely sources of life-extending house-room, to him. In Deathly Hallows, Harry leaves these alternate homes knowing full well he may never return to him. And in finding the courage to walk away from these places of safety and emotional support, Harry also finds the strength to confront the great void in his life, his parents’ graves and ruined home. If Christmas is, for J.K. Rowling, an opportunity to celebrate families both biological and chosen, Deathly Hallows recognizes that mourning is a kind of celebration.
The Harry Potter novels may not acknowledge that Christmas is a Christian celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, and even the cultural elevation of the holiday may not be enough to satisfy the critics of the novels who have condemned them as anti-Christian. But over seven novels, as Rowling builds up to Harry’s own sacrifice for the people he loves, Christmas is a regular reminder of the joy of arriving into a family, even at a belated date, and the pain of seeing a family torn apart. Even without ever mentioning Jesus’ name, that’s about as sharp a distillation of the power of the holiday, an occasion marked by both joy and grief, as I can possibly imagine.