Tim Burton’s seminal stop-motion classic The Nightmare Before Christmas turns 20 years old today, which is surprising since Jack Skellington is looking as slim as ever. That means that the question of when-do-you-watch-it has never been more relevant.
Every season, when I get to geek out about the holiday movies I’ll get to watch again, there are a few that easily come to mind—I know the sassy ladies of Hocus Pocus will grace my screen during Halloween, just as confidently as I know that emo Rudolph and the Rankin-Bass Claymation crew will take up space on my DVR during Christmastime. But Nightmare Before Christmas poses an interesting dilemma: do you watch it at Halloween, or at Christmas?
The simple, obnoxious answer is that you can watch the movie during one or both holidays and not feel any shame whatsoever. It’s an easy way out, though, and I call shenanigans on this thought process. Shenanigans! Every holiday-themed movie that exists in the film-time continuum should have an ideal viewing environment during said holiday—would you ever dare watch Elf in July, or It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown during Easter, or New Year’s Eve on Valentine’s Day? (Trick example: you wouldn’t dare watch New Year’s Eve, ever.)
With Nightmare, it’s tricky because the film is dripping with the trappings of both Halloween and Christmas. It’s dark and spooky and has a character named Oogie Boogie. Much of the movie takes place in a land literally called Halloween Town. The hero is a skeleton; his dog is a ghost; the supporting characters are witches; the villain is a talking bag of snakes; the main love interest is a Frankenstein-like lady that kind of looks a little bit like Shailene Woodley. Ask any child and they’ll tell you that Nightmare Before Christmas has all the familiar characters of an elementary school Halloween parade, and is thus a paragon of the holiday. (Also, it was released on October 29, so there’s that.)
On the other hand, the film is as much a jolly Christmas movie as any other heartwarming holiday tale of acceptance and generosity and snowflakes. (This one just happens to have a few more severed heads than, say, Miracle on 34th Street.) Santa Claus and the meaning of Christmas are the real meat of the story here. Plus, Halloween Town is simply the film’s ordinary world, the first-act baseline for normality before Jack Skellington embarks on a journey that leads him to Christmas Town. You wouldn’t say that Lord of the Rings is a Shire movie just because Frodo’s from there. Jack’s narrative, despite his beginnings, is a Christmas redemption story through and through, and as such, it goes perfectly with a mug of hot chocolate on a wintry night.
So which is it? Do you award Nightmare the Halloween status because of its creepy cast, or give it Christmas status because of its warm fuzzies?