Back in 1982, when he was still working in Walt Disney’s animation studio, director Tim Burton penned a poem called The Nightmare Before Christmas, tapping into his lifelong fascination with the spirit of both Halloween and Christmas. But it wasn’t until 1993 that he got to see his passion project reach the big screen, with the help of fellow animator Henry Selick and frequent musical collaborator Danny Elfman. What emerged was a stop-motion animated holiday classic… but which holiday does it celebrate, exactly?
Splitting its time between the setting of Halloween Town and Christmas Town, with a narrative that finds a spooky skeletal hero kidnapping Santa Claus with the intent of taking his place, The Nightmare Before Christmas has been embraced just as much in the month of October as it has in December, leaving some fans to wonder exactly which of its two holidays the movie represents more. With that in mind, we present two arguments below — one explaining why it’s a Christmas movie and one in favor of Halloween — and leave the final decision up to you. Read on to see what our passionate RT staffers had to say, and then cast your vote in the poll below!
This shouldn’t even be a debate. It might be true that Jack Skellington, the so-called “Pumpkin King” and central hero of the story, is literally a walking skeleton who hails from a place called Halloween Town, and that the narrative primarily focuses on him and the other misguided citizens of Halloween Town, but their entire journey is centered on Christmas.
When Jack first stumbles into Christmas Town, he is so awestruck by the majesty of Christmas, so inpired by the glorious joy he witnesses, that he desperately wants to recreate it. In other words, he is essentially infected by Christmas spirit, which he can barely contain, and immediately returns to Halloween Town to spread holiday cheer and share what he’s witnessed. He decides he’s going to take over Christmas himself, and while his impulses are wildly inappropriate and fairly lump-of-coal-worthy, he actually assembles a team of reindeer (albeit reindeer skeletons), slaps on a red suit and fake beard, and flies around the world delivering presents!
Are his gifts horrific and disturbing? Oh yes, very much so. But that also plays into Christmas themes, as Jack acknowledges the gargantuan mess he’s created and returns to Halloween Town with a renewed sense of appreciation for his home. How many Christmas movies have hinged on the character transformation of someone who was self-obsessed witnessing the rotten fruits of their toxic ambition and coming to terms with their own faults?
To top it all off, Santa pulls a little last-minute flyby and blesses Halloween Town with its first winter snow, as if to say, “I know you guys are all about spooky shenanigans, but you know what? Merry Christmas.” Case closed.
The Nightmare Before Christmas is a Halloween movie. Sure, there are Christmas elements, and maybe a large portion of the film is dedicated to Jack Skellington literally trying to scientifically discover the meaning of Christmas, but the protagonist’s’ name is also literally Jack Skellington. It primarily takes place in Halloween Town, not Christmas Town, and the dominant aesthetic is appropriately creepy. There’s a zombie child with his eyes sewn shut, for goodness sake. That’s not very Christmas-y.
Thematically it’s more Halloween than Christmas. While Christmas is a great opportunity to feel weird about yourself in family situations and learn the spirit of giving or whatever, Halloween is a holiday about acceptance. It’s about accepting death and celebrating life, while being open to the idea that there’s more beyond this mortal coil. It’s also about wearing costumes to be someone else for a night, and while that might sound like the opposite of self-acceptance, costumes are often a reflection of the wearer and can teach you things about yourself. Who wears a costume of something they hate? Almost no one.
Jack puts on the Santa suit (his costume) because he doesn’t want to be the Pumpkin King anymore; he wants to be something else. When his attempts to bring Christmas to the masses turn out to be horribly misguided, Jack musically soliloquies in a graveyard before realizing that he is exactly the person he is meant to be and that the coldness in his bones can’t be warmed by trying to be someone else. Being Santa for a night teaches Jack the virtues of being himself, like the year you wore heels as a part of your costume and realized how great your everyday decision to wear flats truly was.
Christmas has enough films. Horror movies aren’t suitable for younger audiences, and aside from Charlie Brown and Casper, there aren’t a lot of Halloween movie options for kids. As director Henry Selick said at the Telluride Horror Show Film Festival a few years ago, “It’s a Halloween movie.“