Thoughts On: The Nightmare Before Christmas - Where Holidays Come From


The Nightmare Before Christmas - Where Holidays Come From

Thoughts On: The Nightmare Before Christmas

Though this film was only re-issued by Disney, we'll sneak it into the...

Jack, the jaded Pumpkin King, stumbles into Christmas town.

The Nightmare Before Christmas is a great film that needn't be saved for October or December to be re-watched. There is very little wrong with this picture. I can only point to the rhythm and pacing of the narrative, saying that it is a bit abrupt at points, just as a few changes in characters are. However, this frenetic, jittery pace seems to fit the tone of the movie very well, only being a slight sore thumb at a few passing moments. Beyond this, the style, design and musical numbers in this movie mix together to produce a perfect recipe for endless re-watches. And in re-watching this film for the... I don't know many-th time, I've stumbled upon its subtextual underbelly. With the opening narration of the film we hear the following:

... the story you are about to be told took place in the holiday worlds of old. Now, you probably wondered where holidays come from. If you haven't, I'd say it's time you begun...

What this opening narration clearly tells us is that this film is about why we have holidays. This is an abstract thought though when you consider the narrative as one about an identity crisis. However, there's a film that can assist us in understanding what the origin of holidays has to do with The Nightmare Before Christmas' narrative. This film is...

... Inside Out. The Nightmare Before Christmas is actually very similar to Inside Out through its message about emotions and ones place in the world. We understand this to be so through the holiday trees:

There are seven trees for seven American holidays:

1. Christmas
2. Thanksgiving
3. Halloween
4. St. Patrick's Day
5. Easter
6. Valentine's Day
7. Independence Day

What we can come to understand is that each of these holidays are representative of reactions to core emotions. We understand this through the film and with an inference.

It is in the first act that we find out that Jack is jaded because he's always scaring people - he wants to be someone else, do something else and feel something different. This is how he finds Christmas town, and what this suggests is that Jack is uncomfortable in his world as a mono-emotional realm. In such, he kind of gives us incite into what it'd be like it if where Christmas everyday...

... kind of. Nonetheless, with this in our back pocket we should take a moment to consider what holidays actually are. They are days we designate as an excuse to give and be given gifts, to go party, to show true feelings to someone, to have some kind of fun. Furthermore, holidays are organised fun categorised primarily by their reaction to a certain emotion. So...

1. Christmas. The essence of Christmas, beyond religion, is simply a call for everyone to be nice and engage in an ape-like exchange of material objects.

2. Thanksgiving. An American holiday and a symbolic reflection/celebration of both loss and settlement - The Native Americans having lost their land due to the pilgrims.

3. Halloween. The day where people dress up to scare each other.

4. St. Patrick's Day. The day everyone gets drunk because... the Irish and... saints.

5. Easter. A celebration of life over death; Jesus being resurrected and spring and such.

6. Valentine's Day. The one where some people get roses and some people get their romantic hopes shattered.

7. Independence Day. Fuck the British.

In all of these holidays you can see the seeds of core human emotions - which brings us back to...

Christmas and St. Patrick's Day are a celebration of joy, of people coming together and generally being nice (depending on the drink with St Patrick's, sometimes sad, sometimes angry). Thanksgiving and Independence Day seem to be reactions against feelings of disgust or anger, reactions against slaughter, injustice, such and so on. Halloween is of course a reaction to fear. Easter is a reaction to sadness with its celebration of life over death. Valentine's Day is supposed to be about love, about over coming the frustration, sadness and anger of being alone. In such, you see all 5 core emotions represented. You may subjectively want to re-match some of these, but I think it's apparent that they're all there.

Understanding this, we come to Jack and Halloween land. His core inner conflict is that he is bound to this basic emotion of fear. He wants to change, he wants to escape fear and go provide joy through Christmas. In such, just as Joy from Inside Out wanted to change Sadness, so does Jack want to change himself. It's by the end of Inside Out, however, that we are told that people need catharsis, they need to let loose and have a healthy relationship with all emotions. This is, in essence, what Jack learns too. He is the Pumpkin King, he is fear, and shouldn't want to change or bottle himself up in another emotion as who he truly is will only contaminate this. This is what this moment symbolises:

Sally sees, what is probably in her world, a beautiful flower. Being so close to Jack having just sent him up a basket of food and drink, contaminated by his Christmas spirit (as represented by the giving), she sees the ugly flower change into a Christmas tree. In such, we see her inner emotions change her external world - and this is exactly what is happening with Jack as he takes over Christmas. However, the tree burns, leaving Sally with nothing. This allows her to realise that she can find balance, find happiness, without changing everything about her world. This is what she fails to warn Jack of. But, by the end, Jack crashes and burns all on his own. And in his darkest moment Jack finds a spark to get him excited about Halloween again - he accepts who he is. This ends the identity crisis element of the story and brings us back to emotions with this final scene...

Jack and Sally realise they were meant to be together. The flower in her hand is a call back to the earlier scene. What it symbolises is Sally's view of beauty with her being a product of Halloween land - which is imbued with fear and wanting to scare people. The dead flower is Sally just as it is Jack; it is romanticism in a dismal world of the dead. Jack's arc is then one towards realising that he doesn't need Christmas and an abundance of joy to be happy, just a person at his side.

This is then the subtle subtext belying this narrative, one that reinforces themes made much more explicit in Inside Out. The Nightmare Before Christmas is then not just about an identity crisis, but finding an emotional equilibrium. How does this all answer the opening narration though?

... the story you are about to be told took place in the holiday worlds of old. Now, you probably wondered where holidays come from. If you haven't, I'd say it's time you begun...

Through its emotional commentary on identity and one's place in the world, The Nightmare Before Christmas suggests that holidays come from a human need for emotional balance. In turn, holidays come from our core emotions being projected into events. These are days in which we focus on fear, disgust, anger, joy or sadness in a reactionary way. We either embrace or deal with these emotions through Christmas, Halloween and Valentine's Day. However, inside these holidays is an emotion in the balance, an identity crisis about to snowball. This, through The Nightmare Before Christmas, is represented by Jack, our archetypal emotional body. Just as he struggles to stay firm in his position as ruler of Halloween (by proxy, fear), like...

... Fear is in charge of fright with Riley's mind, so do we struggle with our capacity to handle emotions - we are like Riley. Ultimately, holidays can then be seen as cathartic releases from the everyday in which we re-calibrate and test specific emotions, releases which facilitate a healthier relationship with our feelings on a wider scale and as a society.

And there it is, the subtext The Nightmare Before Christmas and its answer to where holidays come from. Your thoughts?

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