In The New Christmas Canon, The A.V. Club looks beyond Rudolph’s nose and Zuzu’s petals to highlight entertainment from the ’90s, ’00s, and ’10s that has become a seasonal staple—or deserves to.
Even for those who don’t celebrate Christmas, the holiday and time of year can provide an aura of calm. When all the shopping is done, the trees dressed up, the dinner tables cleared of their ceremonial hams and yams, an inevitable period of slowness seeps into the world. It’s what we do with that feeling that defines our wintertime experiences from year to year, whether we’re fulfilling an idealized scene of the winter holidays or not. Our surroundings might consist of a full family, warm blankets, and logs crackling in the fireplace, or a cramped, lonely apartment with a poorly functioning space heater. In both scenes and for everything in between, we’re in the eye of the raging storm that is daily life—a crucial time to recharge for what’s next.
Emotionally speaking, it’s in this annual pocket of quiet that some the highest of highs and lowest of lows occur. The calm before (and after) the storm tends to give way to a lot of inward assessment every year, often marked clearly by an intense longing for love and connection that quite simply is or isn’t adequately satisfied. For a body of work that captures the full spectrum of this existential Christmastime wonder, look no further than the seven-book saga of an orphan boy who goes from the most unimportant person in the world of his small household to the epicenter of an expansive magical universe: Harry Potter.
In all seven of the Harry Potter Christmases, from Harry’s first otherworldly encounter with his dead parents through the Mirror Of Erised in The Sorcerer’s Stone to his heartbreaking visit to their grave in The Deathly Hallows, J.K. Rowling never flinches from the dark reality she’s created for her titular character. Harry is an orphan whose parents were brutally murdered before his infant eyes, and the heaviness of this fact amplifies over the holidays he would have spent with them under happier circumstances. It’s almost cruel how Rowling teases an 11-year-old Harry with a mirage of his parents through the Mirror Of Erised, a dangerous object that shows people the deepest desire in their hearts. It’s an accurate reflection of what we all do during especially lonely holiday seasons. We yearn for the human connection our friends and families provide, and the lack of it can make us wish for a return to the relative dullness of the day-to-day grind. Out there, we reason, there’s more than enough fuss to distract us from the gloom.
Although Harry is painfully reminded that he lacks close blood family every Christmas, his surrogate family of Hermione, Ron, and all the Weasleys does a fantastic job of demonstrating the opposite, far more positive side of the winter break mood scale. The first instance of this happens right alongside Harry’s longing bouts with the Mirror in The Sorcerer’s Stone, shortly after he, Ron, and the scattered few that stayed at Hogwarts over the holidays have finished Christmas dinner:
After a meal of turkey sandwiches, crumpets, trifle, and Christmas cake, everyone felt too full and sleepy to do much before bed except sit and watch Percy chase Fred and George all over Gryffindor tower because they’d stolen his prefect badge.
This scene captures that warm feeling of being completely fat, happy, and wishing the winter holidays lasted forever, but even more noteworthy is its proximity to the Mirror scenes. Both of these represent genuine polar opposite feelings that only exist within the unique vacuum that Christmas yields. That their inclusion so close to one another in a children’s book feels natural is a testament to Rowling’s understanding of the different emotional reactions the winter holidays’ calmness provokes.
Spread out across the Christmases in the next six books are variations on the interaction between these contrasting moods. In The Chamber Of Secrets, The Prisoner Of Azkaban, and The Goblet Of Fire, Harry again stays at Hogwarts over the holidays, dealing with more complex emotional issues the older he gets. While Chamber Of Secrets sees him mostly distracting himself from his wintertime woe for the first time by turning into a Slytherin with Ron and (not quite) Hermione, Prisoner Of Azkaban and Goblet Of Fire give Harry his first serious squabble with a pseudo-family member (Hermione, over a potentially hexed broomstick) and all the confusion that comes with love and dating (via the Yule Ball). The Order Of The Phoenix gathers all this growing teenage angst into a tight ball within Harry, and after moodily withdrawing from his entire surrogate family at Grimmauld Place, he eventually explodes at them in the typically volatile outburst only a 15-year-old can produce.
Fittingly, the only time Harry truly returns to the silent Christmas sadness he experiences in front of the Mirror Of Erised is in book seven, The Deathly Hallows. Walking through Godric’s Hollow for the first time, the place where he lived as a baby, Harry visits his parents’ graves as snow begins to fall on Christmas Eve. It’s exactly as quiet, somber, and touching a scene as his longing stare into the Mirror six years prior, but infinitely more powerful due to all the baggage he’s accumulated since then.
More likely than not, most people live somewhere in between this sad, lonely Harry and the fat, happy Harry every Christmas. It’s usually not as bad as sitting alone in a dark dungeon to the same extent that it’s rarely ever as happy as dozing off by a roaring fireplace among family and friends. As with any isolated period of calm, the good and bad are jumbled together, and we define it by whatever plays best into our mood at that time. In The Half-Blood Prince for example, Harry is surrounded by plenty of his loving surrogate family—Ron, most of the other Weasleys, and Remus Lupin included—but they’re all crammed into the shabby Weasley Burrow. Add to that discomfort an ill-advised visit from the estranged Percy Weasley, the notable absence of an irritated-with-Ron Hermione, and the Minister Of Magic’s request to turn Harry into a piece of propaganda, and now we’re talking about an average (magical) Christmas. It has all the elements that are supposed to make the holiday great, but too much ego and commotion to really enjoy them—basically, it’s National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation with wands.
Christmastime in Harry Potter is a reflection period in which the narrative pauses to give its characters room to breathe before the inevitable figurative and/or literal battle to come. Harry experiences the full range of winter emotions across seven trips through the eye of the storm, maturing each year in his handling of the ups and downs it elicits. He isn’t necessarily a model for how to appreciate the holidays despite the dark clouds that can hang over them, but he does remind us to look inward even if we don’t like what we see. Whether it’s feeling warm and cozy or jealous of how warm and cozy others are, what’s important is the acknowledgement that we’re feeling at all. In the absence of that, this is all just one continuous storm. We’d be heading into the hangover of holiday season to take on whatever it is we were trudging through just to get to the holidays in the first place, but with no personalized knit sweaters or flying broomsticks to prop us up.