Does The Nightmare Before Christmas permit or pan holiday overkill?
I have long said Nov. 28 is the ideal date to screen The Nightmare Before Christmas. It marks the midway point in the 55-day interlude between Halloween and Christmas.
In addition, more often than not, the poor middle child we call Thanksgiving has come and gone. Even when it has not, most palate cleansers have yet to dissolve the last of the pumpkin residue.
By this time, you can even walk around suburban neighborhoods and see decaying jack-o’-lanterns and fresh wreaths on one porch.
As pathetic as it is to let one holiday linger too late or another leap in too soon, that visual soundly evokes Tim Burton’s poem-turned-screenplay. When it comes to enabling the too-much-of-a-good-thing-too-soon Christmas creep, the storyline is more innocent than the way it has been advertised and utilized.
This autumn marks the movie’s 25th anniversary, yet I never bothered watching it until this past Thanksgiving weekend. Prior to that, my knowledge of it came solely from its 90-second trailer on various Disney videocassettes. The clip that resonated the most was when three children approach Santa Claus and say, “Trick or treat.”
Santa’s response spoke for me. “Huh?”
Indeed, I thought, what was up with this blatant blending of distinct holidays that permeate two distinct months? What was this undertaking if not an excuse for capitalizing on entertainment’s eagerness to dish up premature Christmas content?
The Nightmare Before Christmas hit most theaters on Oct. 29, 1993. It was available on home video by Sept. 30, 1994. To be sure, those choices of release date lend nothing but fodder for the Christmas creep.
The irony, though, is that the movie frames Halloween as the party guilty of calendar enroachment. And this was nearly a quarter-century before we started seeing black-and-orange candy displays and pumpkin-spice galore in the dog days. You know, when U.S. retailers are otherwise plugging a between-Independence-Day-and-Labor-Day void with Christmas in July and back-to-school jumpstarts.
But Burton’s story all but gives Christmas a directive to learn how it feels to be invaded by another holiday. As the face of the title occasion, Santa is the lone innocent victim.
Jack Skellington trails him in that race as the protagonist who cannot catch his costly flaws quick enough. He draws up a plan with good intentions, albeit with some personal incentives as the emotional catalyst.
When Jack and his fellow Halloween experts execute his vision, however, the holiday overlap becomes an overload. As no one but Sally understands, it is doomed to fail.
After all, this is a community where, as they say in The Scottish Play, fair is foul and foul is fair. Under that built-in mentality, the citizens cannot help bungling the crucial Christmas-oriented distinction between naughty and nice.
Within safe boundaries in real life, naughtiness is encouraged on Halloween, whereas niceness is imperative around Christmas. Yet the former has made itself the uncontested runner-up to the latter with its version of a seasonal creep. There are stores explicitly devoted to either one, counting down the days from 364 onward.
Based on the premise of his plot, it is easy to imagine Jack himself growing wary of releasing pumpkin-spice products in summer. But as the personification of one holiday, he proves that opposites can only attract to a certain extent.
Within minutes of his ceremonious introduction, Jack takes shape as a sad commentary on the downside of stardom. No one disputes his self-proclamation as the “pumpkin king” and “the master of fright.” Even the mayor of Halloween Town is a sycophant of his, and his song to himself cites international recognition.
Yet the same song laments his lack of anything left to prove. As Sally watches him grapple with his heavy crown, it briefly looks like Valentine’s Day is the logical diverting occasion.
Not so. While the forest Jack enters for much-needed alone time does feature a heart-laden threshold, he is drawn to the tree within a tree.
Upon entry to Christmas Town, he gets his first glimpse from a Mount Crumpet-like vantage point. Instantly intrigued, he highlights the contrasts between this holiday and the one he specializes in. Most notably, he takes joy in the absence of monsters under children’s beds and the fact that “no one’s dead.”
There is even a subtle foreshadow of his relationship with Sally when he takes a liking to the mistletoe’s purpose. The activity therein borrows an integral aspect of Valentine’s Day.
To his credit, Jack tries to pitch Christmas to his townspeople by underlining its existing common threads with Halloween. Candy can go in a stocking just as logically as it can a trick-or-treat bag. The season’s culmination with a much-anticipated nighttime flight suits everyone’s taste in atmosphere.
Unfortunately, upon embracing Christmas, the Halloween Townies botch it through a combination of ineptitude and malice. It does not help that the first song they learn from Jack was lifted by Christmas from the Thanksgiving canon. But their original tinsel tune is the buildup before the letdown.
As they confidently sing “Making Christmas,” the back-and-forth shots between amateurs and professionals proves they are trying to fix what is not broken. Jack’s desire for a change of pace has infectiously morphed into greed for more glory. His locale’s holiday is over, and no one can wait long enough for their next shift.
Naturally, their pursuit of a solution can only unveil more problems. Halloween Town’s dialect is missing its Christmas counterpart’s idea of “nice.” Its children cannot grasp Santa’s preaching of “peace on earth and goodwill toward men.” Jack even needs to correct the mayor by explaining that the goal is a “jolly” time rather than a “horrible” one.
By failing to spot these inherent and irredeemable flaws, Jack neglects everything he admired about his first impression of Christmas. It is nothing short of a bad omen when Sally dresses a dead twig as a mini-Scotch Pine, only to watch it burn instantaneously. A unique form of tragicomedy is taking shape.
While the packages are wrapped decently enough, the vampires tasked with crafting its contents lack elf DNA. Maybe they could have some if they were to bite some toy-making masters, but that would be too much for a family-oriented Burton flick.
Come what may, Jack’s deliveries unleash the very monsters whose absence made Christmas Town enticing the way he found it. Once his sleigh plummets at the hands of “real-world” armed forces, his mood sinks back to where it began.
Fortunately, he sees enough reasons to claim a moral victory, as he is refreshed to return to his forte. Upon accepting Jack’s amends, Santa furthers the small gains with a parting gift of Halloween snow.
The powdery white blanket alone is plenty of Christmas-related material for Halloween Town. Together with the lights, it brings a better illusion of life to a time of year synonymous with deathly vibes. It is not unlike the origin of Christmas’ coincidence with Saturnalia and the winter solstice.
Just as long as there are no mixes of orange-colored lights with red and green, the common traits are fine. Likewise, a little eeriness before a full-on festive payoff has its place in Christmas tales.
This means going through the cold, dark unknowns via A Christmas Carol, The Polar Express or “Walking in the Air.” None of those are in-your-face scary, and the figurative chillers do not linger to the end of the story. No one is truly crossing the line until they pull Christmas back behind the boundary we Americans call Thanksgiving.
Ditto, as The Nightmare Before Christmas demonstrates, if Halloween overdoes its specialties post-October. No two distinct holidays have much business intermingling, let alone taking each other’s material into their own hands.
Since Burton’s brainchild depicts Halloween going overboard at Christmas’ expense, it works for December. Its release dates may have fed into the real-life role reversal. But it is never too late to restrict private screenings and TV airings to Christmastime proper.
Just save it for when a given year’s Halloween is a memory and building anticipation of Christmas makes sense.