White Horse Inn Modern Reformation

The Nightmare Before Christmas as Liturgical Fairy-Tale, Part 2

Published Monday, December 7, 2020 By Anthony G. Cirilla

We left off having discussed the mythopoeic elements of fantasy and recovery in the first part of this discussion, with escape and consolation as the two further effects which Tolkien regards as necessary for a narrative to be deemed a fairy-tale. As we cover these aspects, our goal is to consider how The Nightmare Before Christmas provides a site of reflection for the logic behind the arrangement of the holidays of Halloween and Christmas, particularly from the standpoint of the liturgical calendar’s designation of All Saint’s Day and Christmas Day itself.

Tyrannical versus Liberating Escape

Tolkien discusses escape, as the second fundamental effect of the fairy-tale, as that desire for imaginative liberation from social ills (as opposed to personal failure to preserve wonder rectified by the recovery aspect). Jack’s desire to find “someplace different, someplace new” comes not only from within but also from a socially claustrophobic way of looking at the world. Tolkien critiques the denigration of escapism by asking, “Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailors and prison-walls?” (60) That Jack’s paramour, Sally, continually struggles against an overprotective, paternal jailor Dr. Finklestein brings out a different sort of imprisonment felt by Jack: a culture which not only rejects but even fails to imagine anything other than mock fear as a source of joy.

Akin to a preacher massaging the Gospel to get better reactions from his congregation, Jack shifts his presentation of his experiences in Christmas Town from one of sharing his experiencing of recovering wonder to simply another iteration of their familiar experiences. “Well,” he says, “I may as well give them what they want.” When the presentation of Christmas trees, presents, and stuffed stockings fail to make a break through, Jack defaults to a Pumpkin King presentation of Santa Claus as a vulture-like “Sandy Claws” circling overhead as if he were a denizen of Halloween Town. This adoption of a familiar register emphasizes reaching his audience at the expense of the integrity of his message, and his scientific attempt to systematically explain his experience of liberating escape becomes another type of interpretive tyranny: what Tolkien refers to as “the Magician.”

According to Tolkien, the Magician’s chief “desire is power in this world, domination of things and wills” (53). By this criterion we can distinguish Jack even at his worst from his nemesis, Oogie Boogie. Clearly, Oogie Boogie is unafraid to harm others in his pursuit of thrills. He sings to Santa Claus, “It’s much more fun when lives are on the line – not mine of course, but yours dear boy, why that’ll do just fine.” Even in the videogame sequel, The Nightmare Before Christmas: Oogie’s Revenge, the chief distinguishing feature between the Pumpkin King and the keeper of creepy crawlies is will to harm. And yet as Jack seeks to understand Christmas, he nonetheless does exhibit “the greed for self-centered power which is the mark of the mere Magician” (53). Even in Christmas Town he sings “I want it for my own,” but this desire for domination surges when Jack has an epiphany of Christmas that “I bet I could improve it too,” leading him to announce to his fellow citizens, “This year, Christmas will be ours!” But Sally alone does not join in their “enthusiastic cloud.”

In addition to his problematic attempt to please the crowd, Jack goes to nowhere other than Sally’s jailor, Dr. Finkelstein. The mad scientist’s desire for control has been made clear to the audience by this point, and even he warns Jack, “Curiosity killed the cat, you know,” to which Jack avers, “I know.” And yet he proceeds in the effort of “murdering to dissect” various iconic, as he calls it, “bric-a-brack” of Christmas paraphernalia, among which, for the most part, anything to do with Christianity and the birth of Christ is noticeably missing. Like Simon the Sorcerer treating the Gospel as something to be bought rather than something which buys you, Jack treats the Christmas experience as something he can master rather than something mysterious. He attempts to study only the superficial elements of the holiday with no core awareness of what something like Santa Claus’s name means—his butchering of it as “Sandy Claus” working as an early tell that the belief of saints like the historical Nicholas will have nothing to do with his findings (and of course the movie is likewise uninterested in such explorations). But even the purely mythic elements of Christmas and its meaning “elude him so,” because he has adopted scientism as the chief tool to explain a mysterious and enchanting holiday to his occultic community. The project is doomed to failure.

The Consolation of Repentance and the Eucatastrophe of Christmas

Tolkien makes clear that sub-creation must be undertaken in submission to wonder at the Primary World, and so manifests its greatest potential when submitted to the creator of that Primary World. The Magician confuses this, attempting to bend the Primary World to his will and so take the place of God. Jack effectively engages in this when he has Lock, Shock and Barrell kidnap Santa Claus, stealing what from his reference point is the harbinger of wonder to the Ordinary World to the Sub-creation that is Halloween Town. Evoking the Christmans hymn inspired by Luke 2:14, Santa asks his kidnappers, “Haven’t you heard of peace on earth and good will towards men?” “No!” they retort, as the disturbing results of the Pumpkin King’s plans come clear. The only humans from the ordinary world to regularly dwell in Halloween Town, Lock, Shock, and Barrell represent the full extent of human depravity surrendered to sub-creation at the expense of the Primary World. But their depravity was empowered first by Jack’s attempt to achieve consolation by mastering Christmas.

Jack would have done better to keep trying to bring Christmas to Halloween Town, but instead brought the real terror he had forbidden even in his own domain to the Primary World. One could liken his efforts to bring a Halloween Christmas to the world without Santa Claus to an effort to obtain salvation through works. Much work went into the preparation of the presents as depicted in the garish and ghoulish “Making Christmas” sequence, where Jack reprimands one of his workers for trying to pass off a turtle’s corpse for having been “dead for far too long”—“try something fresher, something pleasant,” Jack exhorts with wonderful obliviousness to the impropriety of his own advice. Ephesians 2:1 tells us that humans in their fallen state are “dead in trespasses and sin,” and just as the freshness of a corpse has no bearing on whether it is indeed a dead thing, we cannot return life to ourselves through works. Article 10 of the Book of Common Prayer explains, “The condition of Man after the fall of Adam is such that, he cannot turn and prepare himself, by his own natural strength and good works, to faith, and calling upon God.” Attempting to make ourselves worthy of the Holy of Holies can be likened to Jack presenting presents, without the aid of Santa Claus, in the form of horrors and monstrosities that he cannot help but deliver since it is all he knows.

In the most poignant moment the film has to offer, Jack repents of his actions while outstretched on the book of a weeping angel and in doing so recovers fresh enthusiasm for his role as the Pumpkin King. “By God, I really tasted something swell,” he acknowledges, showing that for all his error he has experienced wonder, and again, “By God, I’m going to give it all my might”: the higher, wonder renewing experience of Christmas has rejuvenated his taste for Halloween’s sub-creative imagination. The reiteration of “by God” twice in the repentance scene might be an accident if it weren’t for the fact that the phrase occurs nowhere else in the film and occurs, moreover, in the presence of an angel. Then he realizes that Christmas must be returned to the proper caretaker – the ordinary world deserves consolation for his mistakes.

Thus Jack must return to the abyss of Oogie Boogie, who is a shadow of Santa Claus: where St. Nick gives children something for nothing as a show of grace, Oogie is a cheating gambler who takes something for nothing as a show of greed. But despite even the physical traits he shares with Santa, Oogie likewise serves as a shadow for Jack—the Pumpkin King, too, takes what isn’t his and asserts sovereignty where he doesn’t have it. Tolkien conceives of Consolation as “the Great Escape: the Escape from Death,” and so Jack’s hurried plunge into a grave from the ordinary world, returning to the secondary world through another grave, constitutes a sort of resurrection for those who believed him dead. What’s more, in his unexpected return from death (ironic since he is already a skeleton) Jack is able to rescue both Sally and Santa from destruction at the hands of Oogie Boogie. This twisted harrowing of Oogie Boogie’s hell results in Santa Claus returning the ordinary world’s celebration of Christmas to joy—one cannot help but feel exultant as Jack asks tentatively, “I hope there’s still time….” “To save Christmas?” scoffs Santa. “Of course there is. I’m Santa Claus.” But beyond simply restoring the ordinary world’s Christmas festivities, Santa Claus also brings snow and the Christmas spirit to Halloween Town. “Happy Halloween,” he calls down, and “Merry Christmas!” replies Jack—the sovereign of the two holidays have brokered a truce, but one where Jack has submitted himself to the seasonal authority of the caretaker of Christmas.

Just as a true understanding of the importance of Christ’s Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection can come only from the Holy Spirit, Jack could not give himself understanding of Christmas without being touched by the spirit of grace in the form of a literal wind sweeping him into Christmas Town. And just so, he could not spread the good news of what he had encountered without help from a denizen of a higher realm than the realm of the imaginary dead. Dead in sin as we are, we can feel the touch of grace not by our power but by God’s—without grace, our world is a Halloween Town far scarier than Jack’s because it is the Primary World.

Of course, I do not mean to suggest that this is intended by Tim Burton in The Nightmare Before Christmas, but mean to say instead that the film reawakens through its Gothic fantasy the fairy-tale wonder we ought to have about the role of Christ in our lives. “Is there still time…” we ask Christ tentatively. “To save your soul?” he says gently. “Of course there is—I am the Son of God.” It’s worth noting that as Jack begins his attempt to take over Christmas, Lock, Shock, and Barrell accidentally bring the Easter Bunny to Halloween Town, having gone through the wrong magical door. But the new life brought to Halloween Town by the presence of Santa Claus does suggest that Halloween Town might be entering a new stage of communal wisdom.

If All Hallow’s Eve reminds us of our death, All Saint’s Day reminds us of the life of those saints committed to Christ, giving us an occasion to pray that God would “grant us grace so to follow thy blessed Saints in all virtuous and godly living” (BCP, 256), as Jack failed to do when he locked up rather than listened to Santa Claus. He could be called Saint Nicholas, so can the sainthood of all believers, only because of Christ, whose Incarnation betokens his Resurrection and, eventually, his Return. This is why the collect for Christmas Day reads, “Almighty God, who hast given us thy only-begotten Son to take our nature upon him, and as at this time to be born of a pure virgin; Grant that we being regenerate, and made by thy children by adoption and grace” (BCP, 96). Perhaps the accidental appearance of the icon of Easter wasn’t so accidental after all. The fear of death’s image on Hallow’s Eve is qualified by the liturgical awareness that Christmas is coming, and if Christmas will come so will Easter.

Anthony G. Cirilla is an assistant professor of English at College of the Ozarks in Branson, MO, where he lives with his beloved wife, Camarie. He writes articles about theistic philosophy in medieval literature, modern fantasy, and videogames.

  • Anthony G. Cirilla