Ah, autumn. It’s that special time of year when my favorite entertainment debate clamors down the chimney and into the minds of movie lovers everywhere. I’m talking about the most controversial question in seasonal cinema, an unanswered quandary of mythic proportions: Is The Nightmare Before Christmas a Halloween movie or a Christmas movie?
For 28 years, this discussion of yuletide versus ghoul-tide has plagued fans of Tim Burton’s 1993 stop-motion masterpiece. On one hand, the movie is dominated by ghosts, monsters, and things that go bump in the night and opened in theaters during a weekend in October, Plus, the opening number “This Is Halloween” is widely heralded as an All Hallow’s Eve anthem. On the other hand, The Nightmare Before Christmas takes place predominantly during Christmas. The lead up to the jolliest of holidays accompanies the rising action, the climax arrives in earnest on Christmas Eve, and the story concludes on Christmas Day. Not to mention, Santa Claus is a main character — and in all but a few cases, that is a sure sign of a Christmas flick.
It’s a tough call. But you can rest easy knowing you don’t really have to make it. Because (and you might want to sit down for this) The Nightmare Before Christmas is actually…a Thanksgiving movie. I know I’m blowing your mind right now.
Now, bear with me. I’m not just splitting the difference and saying it’s a mix of Halloween and Christmas so you should watch it during the holiday in between them. (Though that’s a perfectly reasonable argument worth taking into account.) Rather, Jack Skellington’s harrowing journey from Pumpkin King to disgraced Santa imposter seriously lends itself to Thanksgiving’s themes of gratefulness and family. It’s a narrative genuinely suited to what this holiday is supposed to be about, even if it’s totally devoid of gourds and cranberry sauce.
In the film, a restless Jack shirks his duties in Halloween Town to forcefully take over Christmas from Saint Nick and the elves. The change in holidays, he thinks, will bring new purpose to his life — er, afterlife? With the support of his freaky friends, spooky admirers, and his hesitant love interest Sally, Jack prepares presents, a sleigh, and Santa suit. Then, he has the real Father Christmas kidnapped and held captive while he flies around the world delivering misguided, gruesome gifts. Following a series of twists and turns, mainly for the worse, Jack accepts that he belongs back in Halloween Town and helps Santa set Christmas right.
But The Nightmare Before Christmas isn’t about regrets. An epilogue reveals Jack is happy he had the experience of borrowing the glittery glory of another holiday and would do it again. So the moral becomes a lesson in gratefulness, with two equally compelling arguments supporting it.
First, Jack learns to appreciate what he has in his community. He’s welcomed back to Halloween Town with open arms and a joyous celebration honoring his escape from antagonist Oogie Boogie ensues. Most adorably, Jack finally sees what’s been in front of him all along: an gracious, kind rag doll who loves him more than anything and a cute ghost dog who wants him home.
Second, Jack learns to value the ups and downs of finding what you’re “supposed” to do with your life. Rather than being racked with the sadness that tortured him earlier in the movie, Jack approaches his evident failure with a wry sense of humor. The extraordinary possibility of those mysterious holiday doors (including the turkey one!) is preserved. But it’s put in a new light, replacing the panic of feeling lost with the excitement of choosing a path.
Watch the movie with its Thanksgiving categorization in mind and you’ll see more of the reasoning behind my conclusion. Sally and Dr. Finkelstein teach us about the importance of setting healthy boundaries with relatives. The Mayor embodies a small community striving to overcome a difficult challenge under poor leadership. Lock, Shock, and Barrel, the mischievous trick-or-treaters, even touch on preparing a complex meal for a critical dinner guest! (This is not a recommendation to serve bugs with your turkey dinner.)
That said, what makes me confident The Nightmare Before Christmas is a Thanksgiving movie are those themes of thankfulness. Ultimately, they’re what this animated classic is really about. It wasn’t the set dressing that helped Jack save Christmas. And all the jack-o-lanterns and boughs of holly in the world can’t overcome the soul-affirming experience of real gratitude.
So, I always watch The Nightmare Before Christmas the last Thursday in November. But I’ll admit I cue it up for Halloween and Christmas too. Halloween Town, Christmas Town, Thanksgiving Town — I’ll watch it whenever and wherever. Because appreciating what you have and where you are is what Jack was teaching us all along.