Is “The Nightmare Before Christmas” a Christmas movie?

by Gavin Meichelbock

With this three-part series “It is a Christmas movie?,” we will review three movies in an attempt to settle the debate as to whether they are Christmas movies or not based on classic Christmas movie criteria and tropes.

Everyone knows a Christmas movie when they see it, but what truly makes a movie a Christmas movie?

“The Nightmare Before Christmas,” directed by Henry Selick, is a widely beloved holiday film, but what holiday does it belong to? Halloween? Christmas? Thanksgiving? What if “The Nightmare Before Christmas” isn’t actually a Halloween movie at all, but instead is a perfect Christmas movie? Although the skeleton lead of the film certainly belongs to Halloween, at the heart of the movie is a Christmas storyline that follows many classic holiday tropes.

The hallmark of many Hallmark Christmas movies is a small-town setting where everyone knows each other. Typically, there is a friendly mayor and the same old troublesome kids, creating a sense of familiarity that gives the film coziness. This also creates the perfect environment for a winter romance. Halloween Town from “The Nightmare Before Christmas” follows this to a T. The ghouls, goblins and monsters are all friends, even though that friendship is shown through them scaring or harming each other in some way. The mayor has a personal relationship with everyone in town, and Lock, Shock and Barrel are about as troublesome as kids can get.

As for the romance aspect, the movie’s similarity with romantic Christmas movies is not only furthered by the coziness of a small town but also by the trope of having a male character, usually the love interest, who is too obsessed with work to appreciate the holidays. In films like “Jingle All the Way” or “The Santa Clause,” the leading man must learn the true meaning of Christmas and realize that love and family is what the holiday season is all about. Jack Skellington fits into this character type perfectly. Because of his ambitions to take over Christmas, he completely disregards Sally’s advice as well as her affection towards him. It is because of Jack’s inability to understand the purpose of Christmas that leads to him becoming an evil Santa Claus.

While Jack had only good intentions, he did unintentionally become a sort of “Krampus.” Jack takes up the mantle of Santa Claus, something quite common in the holiday genre, after he has Lock, Shock and Barrel kidnap the real Santa. Through the use of a classic holiday celebration to unite the town, Jack and his friends transform Halloween Town into a ghoulish Christmas Town. Because they do not understand what the holiday is about, however, their version of Christmas turns out to be strange, bizarre… and on the attack. In a coffin sleigh pulled by Zero, Jack’s ghost dog with a bright nose, Jack takes to the skies to deliver his holiday cheer. The presents he delivers include severed heads, dead animals turned into hats, an evil flying doll named Scary Teddy, a duck with bloody sharp teeth and a giant orange-and-black snake. These toys terrorize the children, naughty and nice alike, and put the world into crisis as a sinister Santa has taken over Christmas. Jack eventually realizes the error of his ways and decides that he must now save Christmas with good old righty and lefty.

With the increase in films like “Jingle All the Way,” “Violent Night” and “Silent Night,” a Christmas “beat ’em up” is always in season. In “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” Jack and Sally team up to defeat Oogie Boogie the boogeyman and rescue Santa in order to save Christmas. Through the use of his Christmas magic, Santa ends the nightmare just in time for Christmas Day. Then Jack, in the conclusion of his workaholic love interest character arc, realizes that Sally was not trying to ruin his holiday overhaul but was just looking out for him.

The film ends similarly to “White Christmas,” with a surprising return to a classic trope as snow falls on Halloween Town for the first time. As the townsfolk engage in snowball fights, ice skating and eating snowflakes, Jack and Sally seal their love with a kiss and the movie fades to black.

“The Nightmare Before Christmas” borrows many iconic tropes from classic Christmas movies such as “The Santa Clause,” “Jingle All The Way,” “White Christmas” and a slew of Hallmark movies. The film’s execution of these holiday movie staples is why “The Nightmare Before Christmas” is, without a doubt, a Christmas movie.

Make sure to tune in next week for the second part of our three-part series! “Home Alone” will be put to the test to see if it truly is a Christmas movie.

The Nightmare Before Christmas. Illustration by Abby Tian/BruinLife.
The Nightmare Before Christmas. Illustration by Abby Tian/BruinLife.

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