The Nightmare Before Christmas marks its 30th anniversary

Written by Steve Norton

You know, Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Vixen, Comet, and Cupid and Donner and Blitzen but do you recall when a holiday-hungry Pumpkin King almost ruined it all? 

In Disney’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, Jack Skellington is the Pumpkin King of Halloween. Although everyone in his haunted community adores him, Jack finds himself in an emotional crisis. The true meaning of Halloween seems to have finally eluded him and he’s looking for something new. 

When he stumbles into an unexplored area of the forest, Jack discovers doors to all the holidays. He is attracted to one more than the others: a glittering tree covered with brightly coloured ornaments. Upon entering, he finds himself in the winter wonderland of Christmas. Suddenly, Jack believes he has found the missing piece. In a joyful frenzy, he immediately sets out to bring Christmas to his people so that he can restore life to their stale traditions.

Now celebrating its 30th anniversary, The Nightmare Before Christmas remains a remarkable achievement. The film’s beautifully fluid animation mixed with catchy (and darkly funny) holiday tunes continue to amaze. 

The tale was originally billed as a new Halloween classic, with its warped landscapes, misshapen creatures, and twisted sense of humor. But even though the film leans into the darkness, it also taps far more deeply into the meaning of Christmas than it does into the nightmare. The film’s best aspect isn’t its hilariously gloomy look at a holiday that’s normally associated with bright lights and Christmas spirit. 

Instead, it’s the film’s utter fascination with Christmas itself. 

Jack’s pageantry during Halloween continues to draw rave reviews from his people but he finds it lacking. He may live in the land of the dead but this Pumpkin King begins to feel that his holiday is missing its soul. When he stumbles into the world of Christmas, brightly lit homes, shiny packages, and crisp, white snow immediately catch his eye. To him, there’s something eye-opening about this holiday and he cannot help but be drawn to its magic. He experiences a kind of hope, love, and joy in that Christmas town that is nothing short of infectious. 

There’s something within Christmas that Jack cannot explain. He needs to understand the holiday, and he can’t help but want to (literally) capture that pure sense of wonder because he believes it’s worth sharing.

As we step into this Advent season, we recognize that Jack’s passion for Christmas is still off target. While it captures the heart of the holiday, it still loses out on the miracle of the Nativity. In The Nightmare Before Christmas, the mystery and the majesty of Christmas culminate with the receiving of presents. But, in doing so, it fails to understand that the gift of the manger is what truly brings light to the holiday scene.

In Nightmare, Jack is looking for something new. But in reality, it’s the birth of Christ that actually made things new. Jesus’ arrival was an announcement that there truly is hope for all, whether it was the wealthy Magi or the impoverished shepherds. The joy of the Nativity stems from the birth of a child that becomes the building block for a new type of kingdom. 

That’s what real hope, joy, and love look like. That’s the core of the holiday that gets snowed over by dazzling sleigh bells in Jack’s search for truth.

Even so, one of the charms of The Nightmare Before Christmas is Jack’s desire to know the secret. There’s such a sense of joy within the film that it begs Jack to look for more. He knows that there’s a reason for this season—he simply stumbles through the wrong door. 

Steve Norton is a writer and podcaster based in Toronto, ON; he’s also an editor at ScreenFish. Read more from “Behind the screens” column.