It’s that time of year again. No, not Halloween, and no, not Christmas. It’s time for every movie lover to express their extreme and passionate opinion about whether Henry Selick’s beloved classic The Nightmare Before Christmas is a Christmas movie… or a Halloween movie.
The Nightmare Before Christmas, produced by Tim Burton and based on one of his poems, tells the story of Jack Skellington, the Pumpkin King of Halloween, who lives in Halloweentown and orchestrates the scariest night of the year, every single year. But he’s suffering from serious artistic burnout, so when he accidentally stumbles into Christmastown, he decides to try his hand at Christmas instead.
The film deftly combines Halloween and Christmas by adding freaky touches to beloved yuletide iconography, like a giant snake instead of a stocking, or a sleigh driven by skeletal reindeer. Even the stop-motion imagery of The Nightmare Before Christmas is a pastiche; before Burton’s film came along, the most famous stop-motion cartoons were beloved Rankin/Bass holiday specials like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town.
Audiences love The Nightmare Before Christmas, at least today. When it came out 25 years ago some folks didn’t know what to do with it, since it was too creepy for the littlest kids, but too childlike to appeal to many adults. In time, however, it found a passionate cult following amongst spooky kids and adults who are children at heart, and now it’s considered a timeless classic all by itself.
But people still debate, every single year… is The Nightmare Before Christmas a “Christmas movie,” which just happens to feature Halloween characters, or is it a “Halloween movie,” which just happens to involve Christmas in the plot?
Well, It’s time to answer that question once and for all. Why? Because otherwise people will never shut up about it, but also because, as fans, we like our collections neat and tidy. We love defining things, and we love understanding how they really work.
And we sure as heck love The Nightmare Before Christmas, so away we go…!
THE CASE FOR HALLOWEEN
The Nightmare Before Christmas begins and ends in Halloweentown, the place where Halloween is manufactured, every year, by ghouls and goblins and all manner of frightening creatures. But since this is from the mind of Tim Burton they’re all charming, workaday folks who just happen to look scary and have creepy interests. They are Halloween people.
At the center of it all is Jack Skellington, the Pumpkin King of Halloween, a creative genius who has lost his drive. He’s out of ideas, he’s eager for a break, and when he accidentally stumbles into Christmastown he finds that sudden burst of inspiration. Christmas excites him but over the course of the film he comes back around, and realizes that Halloween is where his heart lies.
In other words, in the world of Halloweentown, Christmas is a fad. It’s a passing fancy, a fun idea that didn’t work and probably won’t ever be attempted again. The purpose of Christmas was to make everyone realize that they don’t need Christmas to be happy; they need to be true to themselves. They need to be true to Halloween.
THE CASE FOR CHRISTMAS
The Nightmare Before Christmas has “Christmas” in the title, and that’s not a coincidence. The protagonists are from Halloweentown but the story is about their first interaction with Christmas, and the impact that has on them in their community. If you call The Nightmare Before Christmas a Halloween movie just because the protagonists are from Halloweentown, you have to take that argument to its logical conclusion: that there are no Christmas movies, unless they specifically take place at the North Pole.
Over the course of The Nightmare Before Christmas, Jack Skellington learns the true meaning of Christmas. He already understood Halloween. What he didn’t understand is that Christmas is an entirely different entity. It’s not just a creative outlet for artists like himself, it’s a holiday with its own personality and its own messages. You can’t just throw shrunken heads in a box and call it “Christmas.”
Christmas is a time for togetherness in the world of The Nightmare Before Christmas, and the film culminates with Jack overcoming his selfish artistic obsessions and realizing that he needed to appreciate the person who loves him and, by the end of the film, who he loves in return. His experience with Christmas is what changes Jack Skellington. Christmas makes him a better person.
THE CASE FOR BOTH
Perhaps the most important deciding factor in any “Holiday Movie” is this: if you take out the holiday, do you still have a movie? After all, you can’t take Christmas out of The Santa Clause any more than you can take Halloween out of Hocus Pocus. In a true holiday movie the holiday can’t be window dressing; it has to be ingrained in the film’s DNA.
The Nightmare Before Christmas is relatively unique in that it’s a story of two holidays, simultaneously, and you can’t remove either from the equation. Take out Halloween and you have no protagonist. Take out Christmas and you have no plot. Over the course of the film the hero learns the true meaning of Christmas, but also relearns the importance of Halloween.
Literally, the premise of The Nightmare Before Christmas is that it’s a Christmas movie and a Halloween movie, at the same time. So if you prefer the Christmas side of the story, it’s a Christmas story, and if you prefer the Halloween side, that’s true too.
However… that’s not why we’re here. Even though The Nightmare Before Christmas is clearly intended to be both kinds of movies, we’re trying to settle an argument, not neutralize it. And if it absolutely has to be more of one holiday than the other…
CONCLUSION: THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS IS A HALLOWEEN MOVIE
If you take the Christmas out of The Nightmare Before Christmas, at least you’ve got a protagonist, a romance, a villain, and a delightful setting. There are so many stories that could be told in Halloweentown that it’s remarkable that they aren’t being told right now, in sequels or spinoffs or comic books or video games. It’s a rich, gloriously detailed world of eye-catching characters with distinct personalities, and they’d be interesting at any time of year, even if it wasn’t Christmas.
Of course, in the process you lose that beautiful story about the meaning of Christmas, but theoretically you could tell a different story about Jack Skellington wandering into the American Revolution in Fourth of Julytown, or dropping onto a pirate ship in Talk Like a Pirate Daytown (come to think of it, that may explain his cameo in James and the Giant Peach).
The Nightmare Before Christmas is about Halloween people doing Halloween things, and without them all you’ve got is another stop-motion animated Christmas special. Henry Selick’s movie doesn’t exist without darkness and monsters, and it wouldn’t have a special place in the hearts of so many movielovers if it didn’t occupy a wholly unique position: the perfect Halloween movie… that you can also watch in December.