What’s this? What’s this? There’s something very wrong
What’s this? There’s people singing songs
As we continue unwrapping The Nightmare before Christmas, we find a hearty recipe for sad Jack Skellington. Mix one part aimless wandering, a dash of sehnsucht wondering, stir with a skeleton-snatching snow flurry and you’ve got the ingredients for Jack’s journey through a doorway to a world of light and laughter, peace and love. Transported from the grey, mundane streets and cemeteries of Halloweentown, the story’s unsatisfied protagonist finds himself in a miraculous and life-altering change of address. Jack sings ecstatically:
The streets are lined with little creatures laughing, Everybody seems so happy… There’s children throwing snowballs, Instead of throwing heads They’re busy building toys, And absolutely no one’s dead!
I like that one of the first things the Pumpkin King notes – and it’s easy to miss in a musical – is that people are “singing”. He’s astonished by this, as if he’s never heard people joined in chorus before. Perhaps he’s just hearing it with transformed ears? Note the happy play of children and the contrast with the grim death and darkness in Jack’s hometown of Halloween. The formerly teary-eyed bone daddy has been delivered from his morbid environs to a better world…
For you have delivered my soul from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling…
– Psalm 116:8
Although the divine vision in this film owes more to a late 20th century Rankin/Bass stop-motion vision of Christmas than any classical biblical vision of heaven, the idea that Jack has found a place of divine bliss, void of death and danger, is sweeter than the candy canes and cookies that mark the signature decor. He notes that the children aren’t troubled by nightmares, but sleep in heavenly peace:
The monsters are all missing and the nightmares can’t be found
And in their place there seems to be good feeling all around
Instead of screams, I swear I can hear music in the air
The smell of cakes and pies are absolutely everywhere…
Tim Burton’s fanciful story taps into the viewer’s desire for a landscape devoid of evil, the real-life monsters we all face, the hardships and trials that make us cry out in anguish for lasting peace, a never-ending Christmas. Our heart yearns for that heavenly hearth that warms us all year long, where even the cold of snow is negligible and simply exists for our enjoyment and play. Jack’s jolly journey to this holiday town represents our desperate hope to transcend the broken world we find ourselves in, an animated wish fulfillment for all who dream of a better life beyond the sun. The character Gandalf (created by J.R.R. Tolkien, who influenced C.S. Lewis‘ conversion to Christianity) describes heaven in The Return of the King:
“…the journey doesn’t end here. Death is just another path . . . one that we must all take. The grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass… and then you see it. White shores . . . and beyond. A far green country, under a swift sunrise.”
A theologian may rightly note repentance is missing from Jack Skellington’s story. The Pumpkin King’s fantastic journey doesn’t include any realization of his own internal lack, (the darkness equally present, or his own culpability for the broken state he’s in). The Grinch, or classic Ebenezer Scrooge, better capture this part of our true need for heart alteration. Still, while The Nightmare Before Christmas may not highlight that essential aspect of our existence, the exuberant transformation Jack experiences is not dissimilar to the change wrought in the Christian following that conviction:
I’ve never felt so good before, This empty place inside of me is filling up
I simply cannot get enough: I want it, oh, I want it!
Mr. Skellington is infused with a peace he’s never known, and it’s evident that more than merely his external surroundings have changed. He’s like Bill Murray’s frantic, frenetic, Scrooge-aping Frank Cross at the end of the hilarious film Scrooged, who never wants the Christmas spirit to end. This divine encounter has rejuvenated Jack internally, an irrevocable enthusiasm instilled by the revelatory joy of Christmas, much like the Christian is overwhelmed by the revelation of Christ Jesus and the promise found in his grace.
“If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” – C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
(God) will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.– Revelation 21:4
Have you known the equivalent of Jack’s sweet revelation, his glowing Christmas destination? If so, did you just get a glimpse, a taste, a fleeting sample… or did you truly experience a life-changing event? Jack, like the Christian, is never the same again. However, when he returns to share the good news he’s encountered, the skeleton king will discover that just because you’ve been surprised by joy and your life has been changed forever, it doesn’t mean your troubles, stumbles and travails are at an end.