Welcome to Alt-Christmas, our week of articles dedicated to movies that we like to watch this time of year, especially if we’re not entirely in the spirit of the season.
The holidays have always been a bittersweet time for me. I lost both grandparents and my father before I turned ten. Then, in mid-October of 2015, my mother passed away after battling a long illness. My sister and I are blessed to have our uncle as a parental figure, but during the holidays it’s hard to sidestep the fact that our family’s numbers are dwindling. The holidays have a specter of grief over them. They haven’t been what they used to be. I think more of it involves the idea that they were not what they could or should have been.
As a child, I used to be wickedly jealous of my classmates and their robust extended family populated holidays. I pictured them in their perfect suburban red and green-lighted houses. I viewed their Christmases as intimate family dinners while I was stuck with a raucous house party where adults talked about philosophy and Broadway musicals. For me, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is a Christmas movie that reminds me that even if I was so sad and frustrated by the holidays I didn’t have, I completely forget about the holidays and the family I do have. Not a family bound by blood but a family forged in friendship.
If you’ve managed to evade Harry Potter fever, I don’t envy you. In fact, I instruct you to head to your local library or bookstore and purchase all of them. You heard me: All.Of.Them. Then, you must read each book but not just read them, visually devour each book in rapid succession. Let the story envelop you like a warm bath and sink untold hours into watching the movies and running around Universal’s Harry Potter area until you are dizzy and stuffed with chocolate frogs.
Now that you’ve returned, a brief synopsis. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone tells the story of Harry Potter, a young English boy who lives with his annoying aunt and her family, the Dursleys, in a cupboard under the stairs. No, they don’t all live in the cupboard, just Harry lives in the Dursleys’ cupboard. Everything is going sufficiently wrong with Harry’s life until he discovers that he is, in fact, a wizard. Subsequently, he gets best friends, wizarding instruction at an awesome school, a mentor, an owl, and a cloak of invisibility. However, he also gets the wizard equivalent of Hitler as a nemesis, so you know nature has a way of evening out the good and the bad. The first book, and the first movie matter, because they deal with Harry building the network of support that will sustain him throughout his wizarding adventures.
The Mirror of Erised
In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, there is a scene that resonates so profoundly with me because it embodies this sort of holiday idealization that plagued my youth. It takes place when Harry has discovered the Mirror of Erised, but he doesn’t quite understand what it does. He approaches it and sees that his parents are standing next to him. He’s taken aback but also so happy. He grabs Ron and takes him to the mirror only to find that Ron doesn’t see what Harry’s seeing. Ron sees himself winning the house cup.
During a conversation with Dumbledore, Harry is told that the mirror shows not what is in existence but what we want to exist. Dumbledore further cautions Harry that others have wasted their lives staring into the mirror. Still, the young orphan can’t help but sink some time into staring at it.
I think I wasted a lot of time as a child mourning what wasn’t and not appreciating what I have. See to compensate for lacking family; my remaining family has always invited all of our friends to Christmas. I always overlooked this as a child. My childhood Los Angeles based holiday festivities being populated by a ragtag gang of family friends with nowhere to go was a source of shame for me. I felt like other people had family and we had a pack of strays.
The Chosen One, a Know It All, and a Goofball
If Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman are the core of the Justice League, Harry, Ron, and Hermione are the core of the Potterverse. No one has ever punched the arm of the person next to them in a movie theater over Peter Pettigrew appearing on screen. No, what strikes your emotional core when watching a Harry Potter movie is what happens to these three characters. In the first Harry Potter, they unite for the first time on screen. In theaters, it was magic. I remember clapping my hands and being so excited to see every minute of it. Harry Potter was the first film franchise outside of anything Batman that interested me. I consumed so much Harry Potter and Batman stuff as a kid I’m surprised I got enough vitamin D to survive.
However, when it comes to discussing Christmas, I cannot ignore Harry Potter’s first Hogwarts style Christmas. Is there anything more bittersweet than Harry’s face when he realizes that he has presents underneath that Gryffindor common room tree? Further, he’s been gifted a hand knitted, motherly bestowed sweater just like the other Weasleys. Harry’s always going to be a Potter but as the movies and books prove; there’s still a place for him at the Weasley’s. The motley crew of redheads welcomed him like there own, and it gets me every time because it was only after my mother died that I realized how much my plucky group of misfits is my family.
I’m talking about a real family that cries with you and stays up all night with you in the middle of the week in October when you have to study for your first ever law school midterm after you lost your mom that morning. They stay there softly patting your head and reminding you that even though they’re fifty-five and their mother just died they still feel like an orphan and it’s ok at twenty-seven for you to feel like an orphan. The sky won’t fall on you.
Who needs a ‘Leave It to Beaver’ Christmas when you can have an ‘Auntie Mame’ style Christmas house party with a ‘Goodfellas’ menu?
My blood-related family is still small. Just my sister, myself and my uncle. Sure, we have distant cousins on both my father and mother’s side. We’ve spent some holidays with them. However, nothing truly compares to those boisterous thirty person Christmas eve parties of my youth. Whether it was the year, a ninety-year-old woman with pink hair and stilettos told us a dirty joke or the gay couple from Northern California that taught my sister how to make an apple martini when she was 10. I’m the person I am because I didn’t have a tame Christmas. I had a wild Christmas filled with people who talked to me like I was an adult, where people weren’t afraid to be themselves, and where showbiz minded friends came to test out their tight five.
I don’t see Christmas as highlighting the absence of a family. Christmas is my time to pull all of our family, our eccentric friends, into a house and feed them unreasonable amounts of food. The message is simple, “You are family now and forever.” If it weren’t for our annual roundup of family friends, Christmas would leave my surviving family members with the tiniest of tables to set for three.
I think this is the reason that the Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone matters so much to me. Sure, Harry Potter played on ABC Family during Christmas time in my formative years. However, the reason I love this film, during Christmas is that it reminds me that I wasn’t lucky enough to have all of my family, but I am fortunate to have chosen my family.