Pumpkins hanging from the ceiling. Ghosts gliding through the hallways. Owls flying overhead as children, dressed in black robes and pointy hats, practice spells. There’s always been something distinctly Halloween about the Harry Potter series.
In fact, Halloween is an important day within the books themselves, and not just as a holiday. From the opening of the Chamber of Secrets to the Triwizard Champion selection, many significant events in the Harry Potter series take place on Halloween. The opening scenes of the series are even revealed later to have happened Halloween night.
Why is this? What is Halloween’s significance? Naturally, I have a theory.
The holiday we now know as Halloween came from an ancient Celtic celebration of Samhain. They believed that on the day we now know as Halloween, the dead returned as ghosts, and they wore costumes and lit bonfires to protect themselves. Later, November 1 became All Saints’ Day and October 31 All Hallows’ Eve, but many of the traditions – like costume-wearing – have remained even as their significance has changed.
Halloween was undeniably a dangerous day in the Harry Potter series, and the events that took place on Halloween often related to death. In Chamber of Secrets, it’s the day a supposedly dead wizard released a monster and started using it to attack Hogwarts students. In Goblet of Fire, it’s the day Harry is forced into a dangerous tournament that nearly kills him and does kill one of his competitors. Even in Sorcerer’s Stone, it’s the first time since he was a baby that Harry’s life is put in danger because of Voldemort. We associate Halloween today with candy, kids in costumes, and spooky – but not truly scary – decorations. But in the distant past, it was seen as both a powerful day and a dangerous one.
And yet, it’s also the day Voldemort was defeated the first time around. While the Celts may have worn costumes to confuse malicious spirits, in the Deathly Hallows flashbacks, Voldemort was able to pass as an ordinary man in costume on Halloween. What a reversal, don’t you think? He describes Halloween decorations as “the tawdry Muggle trappings of a world in which they did not believe”, giving the impression that it is not fake spiders or ghosts – or even magic – that is dangerous, but people like Voldemort (Deathly Hallows 342). And, just like the evil spirits the Celts lit bonfires to protect themselves from, Voldemort is temporarily defeated that night. He fails to kill Harry and loses his power.
He is defeated by a mother’s selflessness and bravery. And here’s where we get to the changing meaning of Halloween, because later on it was linked with All Saints’ Day. A religious holiday meant to honor all dead Christians, All Saints’ Day could even be said to share some of the previous ideas about life and death not being so separate after all, but in a very different way. And for Harry, his parents are never really gone. He sees echoes and shadows of them throughout his days at Hogwarts, eventually even meeting them in a not-quite-ghostlike form near the end of Deathly Hallows. They are watching over him, and their love protects him.
I’m not saying anything is literally going on with October 31 in Harry Potter. But thematically, I think there’s a reason things tend to happen on Halloween.