When my informant was in third or fourth grade in the town of Rye, New York, she heard a legend going around the school that came to be called “The Hogwarts Tree.” According to the legend, there was a particular tree at the corner of the nature reserve that was connected to the world of Harry Potter, a sort of portal into the world of wizardry. It originated from a story that had been passed along, something of a legend in the tiny town of Rye:
“There was this boy like about our age, and he had a fight with his mom and ran away and supposedly slept at the nature reserve. Oh, he was from Milton, which was like another elementary school near us. I mean I don’t think I really believed this at first, because the nature reserve can be freakin’ scary at night. But anyway, I was in elementary school and I was like, whoa. So he was trying to get to sleep in the nature reserve, and uh, he was under this tree. He’s getting kinda scared because it’s freakin’ dark and like, it’s windy so the trees are making weird noises and stuff. And he looks up, and he sees this white owl sitting on the branch on top of him. No one sees white owls, you know? I haven’t, anyway. Well, there’s this white owl, and it looks sort of like Hedwig from the movie, like it’s big and fat and has those grey markings. So this boy’s read Harry Potter and he thinks, holy crap, it’s freakin’ Hedwig. And even though it’s dark and super windy and the branch keeps moving back and forth, this Hedwig owl is so calm and like, the boy isn’t as scared anymore because he feels like Hedwig’s protecting him. So uh, he goes to sleep I guess, and the next morning he wakes up right, and he finds the Hogwarts letter like sitting right next to him! Like the one telling him “Welcome to Hogwarts” and stuff, like, “you’re a wizard, yay!” Which is pretty much what everyone in my elementary school wanted at that point, you know, we were like all of us about the right age. Uh, anyway, he opens the red seal thing, and he reads it, and he’s super-excited and forgets about the fight and goes home to his mom, but she doesn’t believe him. She doesn’t even believe he slept over at the nature reserve, she thinks he’s just saying that to make her feel guilty for the fight, and obviously he doesn’t believe her about the owl. The boy goes around telling his friends and stuff, but before his friends could ask him about it and stuff, he just up and disappears. The next day, like, his mom comes to wake him up for school and he’s gone, and nothing’s gone but the window’s open, and that’s when she realizes she should’ve believed him.
No one knows exactly where the legend came from, but my informant said she had heard it from a friend who had heard it from a friend who went to Milton Elementary School, where the boy had supposedly gone to school. There were some people who believed it, she said, but most people did not, if only because the nature reserve was perceived to be so frightening at night that no one would ever go there to sleep alone, and because in a small town like that, such a police investigation would have been the talk of the decade. However, the most significant aspect of the story wasn’t, or isn’t, its believability, but more the rituals it spawned.
Although the legend had initially circulated amongst elementary schoolers, it eventually found its way into the collective imagination of middle school and high schools students, who began to use it to create ritualistic events. For instance, my informant said, there were always a group of foolhardy middle school kids that would make it a point, over the summer when they were bored, to camp under different trees a few nights in a row, to see if they could find the right one, “The Hogwarts Tree.” Even in high school these sort of ritualistic events proceeded, with high schoolers doing the same thing or being even more clever by daring someone to sleep under a tree alone. At one point, my informant said, when the legend was at its peak, there would be twenty or thirty groups of different middle schoolers and high schoolers (sometimes with parent chaperones, although these were the “lame” groups) grouped under different trees, using “The Hogwarts Tree” as an excuse to camp out in the middle of the nature reserve. It became fashionable to say that they had spent the summer looking for “The Hogwarts Tree,” and oftentimes people told stories of how they had come so close to finding it.
The town police had, apparently, turned a blind eye to the proceedings, seeing as how it was all some kids having fun, up until high-schoolers and college students began drinking in the reserve, having secret Hogwarts parties that my informant did not know about until she was a high-schooler herself. These and the other groups petered out as the police began discouraging them from camping in the reserve. There were still some people that ventured into the reserve to look for “The Hogwarts Tree,” but these were random groups, usually college students looking for an adrenaline rush.
This legend arose, obviously, from elementary school students’ obsession with the Harry Potter books–especially because they were of the right age to receive the letter from Hogwarts that would supposedly proclaim them a wizard. Every reader of the Harry Potter books has wanted to become a wizard, and this desire is perfectly captured in this story, which entranced first elementary schoolers, and then those older, indicating that nobody is too old for some literary escapism, or to want an excuse to camp out in a forest without parental supervision. Looking for “The Hogwarts Tree” perhaps gave them a sense of higher purpose that elevated the event beyond the traditional experience.