Getting a Clue for Christmas
In the spirit of the holidays, let’s talk about Christmas in the wizarding world!
Halloween understandably gets more of the press given that Voldemort attacked the Potters on Halloween and that the first four books created a very consistent pattern of the villain first showing his hand on Halloween (Quirrell and the troll, “The Chamber of Secrets has been opened,” Sirius breaking into Gryffindor Tower, and Harry’s name coming out the Goblet of Fire). In fact, one of the questions I’d really like to ask Jo is why she excluded Halloween from the latter half of the series – unless the pattern had just become too obvious. But no matter, we’re here to talk about Christmas.
Christmas features prominently in all seven books, getting a chapter devoted to it in every single book: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone Chapter 12, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets Chapter 12, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban Chapter 11, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire Chapter 23, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix Chapter 23, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince Chapter 16, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Chapters 16 and 17. And there are several patterns to all these Christmas chapters.
If Halloween is when the villain first reveals themselves, Christmas is where we get crucial information about who someone is or how something works, which always pays off at the end. (Of note, this is a credit to Jo: Even the holidays, in all their sentimentality, are used as an opportunity to feed us information.) In fact, as the books grow more complex, with many subplots and several mysteries playing out at once, Jo somehow manages to drop clues for almost all the mysteries in play every Christmas.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry first runs into the Mirror of Erised and sees his heart’s desire in it – this will play into the book’s climax, where Harry gets the Sorcerer’s Stone out of the Mirror. Here, we (and Harry) learn how the Mirror of Erised works.
On a macro level, our first Christmas also gives us our first clue to an overarching mystery for the entire series: why Dumbledore had James’s Cloak the night the Potters died. As we find out at the other end of the series, it was because Dumbledore realized it was a Hallow. This mystery was significant enough for Jo to draw our attention to it in the lead-up to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, as her NAQ (“never asked question”).
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Harry and Ron interrogate Draco under the guise of Polyjuice Potion. Though they are disappointed that Draco is not the culprit and doesn’t know who is, Draco actually delivers to them (and the reader) three key points of information (223–224):
- “The last time the Chamber was opened […] was fifty years ago.”
- “[The] last time the Chamber of Secrets was opened, a Mudblood died.”
- “Whoever it was [that opened the Chamber] was expelled.”
This is a lot more for the trio to go on than merely the legend of the Chamber and Dobby’s slipup about the Chamber having been opened before. These three things are what Harry uses to connect the Chamber of Secrets to Tom Riddle, Hagrid, and Moaning Myrtle.
We also get our first clue to a side mystery as well: what Percy Weasley is up to in Chamber of Secrets.
‘The Slytherins always come up to breakfast from over there,’ said Ron, nodding at the entrance to the dungeons. The words had barely left his mouth when a girl with long, curly hair emerged from the entrance.
‘Excuse me,’ said Ron, hurrying up to her. ‘We’ve forgotten the way to our common room.’
[…] After a quarter of an hour, just when they were getting desperate, they heard a sudden movement ahead.
‘Ha!’ said Ron excitedly. ‘There’s one of them now!’
The figure was emerging from a side room. As they hurried nearer, however, their hearts sank. It wasn’t a Slytherin, it was Percy.” (219)
Oh, the juxtaposition of these two bits is brilliant: One would never guess that the appearance of Penelope Clearwater and Percy Weasley is in any way related, but we find out at the end of the book that they’d actually been doing some Christmas snogging at this moment.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, at first glance, it appears that the big reveal (Sirius was the Potters’ Secret-Keeper and betrayed them) comes the week before Christmas. But if we’d known about this Yuletide pattern, we’d have known it was a red herring. The actual clues are buried deep in the text: “Scabbers, once so fat, was now very skinny; patches of fur seemed to have fallen out too” (226). Scabbers’s stress at Sirius’s escape is the key here.
We get a lot of clues about Lupin dropped over Christmas. First, Ron provides evidence that Lupin’s sicknesses are not all that they appear:
‘And he was away when your Nimbus got smashed, and he might’ve heard about it and decided to visit Diagon Alley and get this for you –‘
‘What d’you mean, he was away?’ said Harry. ‘He was ill when I was playing in that match.’
‘Well, he wasn’t in the hospital wing,’ said Ron. ‘I was there, cleaning out the bedpans on that detention from Snape, remember?'” (224)
When Trelawney deigns to join Christmas dinner, the talk once again turns to Lupin and his illness.
Professor Trelawney ignored her. Eyes open again, she looked around once more and said, ‘But where is dear Professor Lupin?’
‘I’m afraid the poor fellow is ill again,’ said Dumbledore, indicating that everybody should start serving themselves. ‘Most unfortunate that it should happen on Christmas Day.’
[…] ‘If you must know, Minerva, I have seen that poor Professor Lupin will not be with us for very long.'” (229)
Two conversations about the same mysterious topic on Christmas Day – that should be enough to set off alarms in all readers’ heads.
One of the sub-mysteries about Lupin in Prisoner of Azkaban is why Snape has such excessive hatred for him, compared to the other Defense Against the Dark Arts professors Snape has resented. We get a clue on this front as well over Christmas: that Snape is brewing potions for Lupin at the behest of Dumbledore. The Headmaster asks, conversationally over Christmas dinner, “Severus, you’ve made the potion for him again?” (229). This is a valuable insight into the dynamic between Lupin and Snape, which will continue to be explored throughout the book. It also offers evidence that whatever Lupin’s illness is, it’s unlikely to be poisoned Wolfsbane Potion from Snape.
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire has several mysteries at work, and we get clues dropped for just about every one of them over the course of the Yule Ball.
Percy Weasley tells us, “I’m afraid to say Mr. Crouch isn’t well, not well at all. Hasn’t been right since the World Cup” (416). This is the first indication we get that something serious is up with Crouch, Sr., beyond just looking gaunt and tired during the Halloween feast. Of course, the reason for Crouch’s absence is his being controlled by his son and Voldemort.
We also receive an indication that Moody is paying awfully close attention to Harry.
‘Nice socks. Potter,’ Moody growled as he passed, his magical eye staring through Harry’s robes.
‘Oh — yeah, Dobby the house-elf knitted them for me,’ said Harry, grinning.” (420)
Moody will later use this information to get Dobby to help Harry with the second task.
We see that Fred and George going after Ludo Bagman looks like something more determined than merely networking.
Fred and George accosted him. […] Ludo Bagman shook off Fred and George fairly quickly, however.” (424)
The twins trying to buy Bagman a drink at Hogsmeade was one thing, but this shows that something is going on.
Then we get our first hint that the Death Eaters were all branded with Dark Mark tattoos since that was not common knowledge up to this point. Karkaroff and Snape are talking about it as they stroll through the rosebushes:
‘Severus, you cannot pretend this isn’t happening!’ Karkaroff’s voice sounded anxious and hushed, as though keen not to be overheard. ‘It’s been getting clearer and clearer for months. I am becoming seriously concerned, I can’t deny it –‘” (426)
Lastly, we get a key clue about Rita Skeeter’s nefarious methods when Harry and Ron eavesdrop on Hagrid and Madame Maxime:
[Harry] tried to interest himself in a beetle crawling along the stone reindeer’s back.” (427)
On reflection, it’s nothing short of extraordinary how many clues and mysteries Jo manages to develop over the course of one school dance, and that’s not even bringing up the fantastic work she does developing romance and character. But that Christmas certainly gave Harry (and us readers) plenty of information, even if most of it was not apparent at the moment.
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
Much like the book it mirrors, Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix has a big red herring positioned as the big Christmas clue that shows up several days early. “The boy’s seeing things from inside You-Know-Who’s snake… Obviously, Potter doesn’t realize what that means, but if You-Know-Who’s possessing him –“ (491). Much like the reveal of Sirius betraying the Potters as their Secret-Keeper, this is false but has a somewhat tangential relationship to the truth. (Sirius was at fault for the Potters’ deaths because he had the idea of switching Secret-Keepers; Harry and Voldemort do have a link between their minds.) Again, if we had known about this Christmas pattern earlier, we would not have been fooled by Jo.
In Order of the Phoenix, the crucial piece of actual info comes fairly early on Christmas Day, when a certain house-elf is conspicuously absent:
‘Come to think of it,’ said Sirius, emerging from the pantry carrying a large turkey as they closed the cupboard door, ‘has anyone actually seen Kreacher lately?’
‘I haven’t seen him since the night we came back here,’ said Harry. ‘You were ordering him out of the kitchen.’
‘Yeah…’ said Sirius, frowning. ‘You know, I think that’s the last time I saw him, too.… He must be hiding upstairs somewhere….’
‘He couldn’t have left, could he?’ said Harry. ‘I mean, when you said “out,” maybe he thought you meant, get out of the house?'”(504)
Kreacher is absent because he went to Narcissa Malfoy upon being ordered out by Sirius. (Look at Harry being right about something! A Christmas miracle!) This is what allows the climactic ruse by Voldemort to take place.
But there is a second discovery to be made that day:
‘And look, Broderick, you’ve been sent a potted plant and a lovely calendar with a different fancy hippogriff for each month; they’ll brighten things up, won’t they?’ said the Healer, bustling along to the mumbling man, setting a rather ugly plant with long, swaying tentacles on the bedside cabinet and fixing the calendar to the wall with her wand.” (512)
As we come to find out later, this is Devil’s Snare being sent to kill Bode, to protect the fact that Voldemort is sniffing around the Department of Mysteries. It’s worth noting that Prisoner of Azkaban and Order of the Phoenix mirror each other in that Harry doesn’t learn anything explicitly; he just makes observations that will reveal key information later on.
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is interesting because the main discoveries made on that Christmas are about Harry’s character. Harry discovers that the Ministry is as messed up as ever and trying to meddle with Dumbledore. And the discovery we make (and perhaps Harry makes in the moment) is two-fold. First, that Harry is supremely loyal to Dumbledore above all others.
‘Dumbledore’s man through and through, aren’t you, Potter?’
‘Yeah, I am,’ said Harry.” (348)
Second, we discover just what a privileged position Harry has in the wizarding world. A 16-year-old kid tells off the leader of his country’s government with total confidence and no repercussions. Harry is always reasonably modest and humble; this is one of the first times he wields the power of who he is against someone theoretically more powerful than he is.
We also get crucial hints about the (wholly unhealthy) Tonks/Lupin romance brewing under the surface: In a mirror of Chamber of Secrets, these are the first explicit clues about a romantic relationship that Harry is totally oblivious to.
‘I invited dear Tonks to come along today,’ said Mrs. Weasley, setting down the carrots with unnecessary force and glaring at Fleur. ‘But she wouldn’t come. Have you spoken to her lately, Remus?’
‘No, I haven’t been in contact with anybody very much,’ said Lupin. ‘But Tonks has got her own family to go to, hasn’t she?’
‘Hmmm,’ said Mrs. Weasley. ‘Maybe. I got the impression she was planning to spend Christmas alone, actually.’
She gave Lupin an annoyed look.” (340)
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
Finally, that brings us to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Here, we get crucial information regarding the two biggest mysteries: what the Deathly Hallows are and who’s the master of the Elder Wand. In regard to the former, Hermione stumbles upon the grave of Ignotus Peverell, which has the symbol of the Deathly Hallows on it. This is evidence that the Hallows were real historical objects, as they later discuss with Xenophilius Lovegood.
In regard to the latter mystery, Harry and Hermione’s terrifying visit to Bathilda Bagshot’s house gives them and Voldemort a crucial piece of information: the identity of Gellert Grindelwald as the thief of the Elder Wand. Harry sees the photo of a young Grindelwald and takes it, only to later drop it. The photo is then picked up by Voldemort – “There he was, the unknown thief, the thief he was seeking…” (345) – sending him on the trail of the Elder Wand’s history past Gregorovitch, culminating in his killing Snape and then being defeated by Harry’s mastery of the wand.
Of course, hindsight is 20/20, but this is one of the most consistent patterns in the Potter books – books that are famed for their ability to surprise us. I’m rather surprised I hadn’t read of anyone picking up on this pattern in the lead-up to Deathly Hallows (someone very well may have and just escaped my notice, of course). And now we know to be on the lookout for clues should a Christmas ever come up again in Jo’s writing!
Note to my readers: I’d just like to extend my thanks to you all for reading all my essays this past year! Happy holidays, and let’s raise a butterbeer to lots more Potter discussion in 2019!