Episode 20: Thoughts on The Nightmare Before Christmas
TBH this episode was mostly my excuse to talk about where holidays come from, but I do talk a bit about my worldbuilding interpretation of TNBC.
HOSTED by Moiya McTier (@GoAstroMo), astrophysicist and folklorist
- Tab for a Cause: tabforacause.org/exolore
Hello! And welcome to Exolore, the show that helps you imagine other worlds, but with facts and science. I’m your host, Moiya McTier. To give you a sense of my credentials, I’m an astrophysicist who studies planets outside of our solar system, which are called exoplanets. Well, I actually study how exoplanets are affected by the motion of our MIlky Way galaxy. I’m also a folklorist who specializes in building and analyzing fictional worlds. This podcast is my way of sharing those worlds with you.
It’s time for another worldbuilding review episode, except it’s more of a stream of consciousness reaction than a review. I’m going to talk about one of my absolute favorite movies, perfect for the holiday season: Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas. Also, I think you’ll find that the episode is more about holidays in general than the movie itself.
Before we get to the movie, I want to congratulate you all on making it to the end of 2020! I can’t possibly know what this year has been like for you, but there’s plenty of data available that tells me this year probably wasn’t your best. Personally, 2020 has brought me a lot of existential dread, deep depression, and heartaching loneliness. But the trash goblin that was this year also urged me to get back into therapy and do a lot of self-reflection that I think has led to significant personal growth. I hope that you’re able to find some of your own silver linings from this year and carry them with you into the next.
If you find yourself feeling hopeful about the New Year, that’s fantastic! The world isn’t going to become a utopia at the stroke of midnight, but we have multiple COVID vaccines that are being distributed as we speak, and that’s a cause for celebration. Maybe some of you will be starting exciting new jobs next year, or you’re excited to wrap up a project you’ve been working on for a while. (Shout out to all my fellow 2021 graduates.) Hold on tight to that hopeful feeling, because we still have a while to go before we reach that light at the end of this shit tunnel.
If, on the other hand, you find yourself feeling anxious about ringing in the new year, I get it. The idea of setting a resolution or “getting a fresh start” when I know that I’ll be just as stuck inside tomorrow as I was today… well, it feels pointless. Maybe it will help you -- just like it helps me -- to remember that New Years is totally made up.
A year is the amount of time it takes Earth to orbit the Sun once, which takes about 365 days. But the Earth’s orbit is more or less circular (with an eccentricity of 0.17, Earth’s orbit is actually the third most circular in the solar system behind Venus and Neptune). No matter what, our orbit is round, so the New Year can start whenever we want it to.
In fact, there are several different “new years” celebrated every year by different cultures around the world. Chinese new year falls between January 21st and February 21st, whenever the new moon of the first lunar month is. The Islamic New year happens around November, the Thai new year is in April and the Ethiopian New Year happens in September. The Jewish calendar actually marks four different new years: one for tracking the reigns of kings, one for the tithing of animals, one that determines when certain fruits can be eaten, and Rosh Hashanah, the new year for years that usually happens in September. My Jewish partner said the other new years sounded familiar, but that Rosh Hashanah is the only new year most Jews celebrate. Still, I like this system. So many parts of life operate on their own schedules independent of each other that it makes sense to have multiple years, just like we have the school year in the US that starts in September.
In some cultures, New Years falls on a different date every year, often because they use a calendar based on the motion of the Moon. In other cultures, New Years is always on the same date. These are typically cultures that use a solar calendar or cultures who have lined their own calendars up with the standard Gregorian calendar.
Speaking of the Gregorian calendar, take a moment to think of a guess for when it was put in place. *pause* I’ll be honest and tell you that, before I did the research for this episode, I genuinely believed the Gregorian calendar has been around for more than 1000 years. That’s because I’m apparently woefully ignorant of Pope history. It turns out that the Gregorian calendar most of us use to track time these days was introduced by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582, which is way more recent than I expected.
Before 1582, the Catholic church (and presumably most of the places Christianity and the Holy Roman Empire had reached) used the Julian calendar, which was introduced by none other than Julius Caesar in 46 BCE. January 1st had already been the New Year for a while by the time Caesar introduced his calendar. And the reason Pope Gregory -- I’m tempted to call him Old Greg, but I don’t know him like that -- adapted the calendar was because Caesar didn’t account for leap days, which really starts to mess stuff up after 16 centuries.
It’s amazing to me that people had the gall to create new calendars before the internet. There was no way to instantly tell people that there was a new calendar to use, which led to a lot of confusion
Anyway, the point of this was to say that time is a construct and people have literally been making up calendars for like 10,000 years, so don’t feel pressed to make any big life changes just some old guy in a rob decided 500 years ago that you should.
Now we can get to the topic of the episode: Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas. If you haven’t seen it… honestly I’m a little confused? I feel like the venn diagram of Exolore listeners and TNBC viewers should just be two overlapping circles, but just in case: the 1993 cult classic tells the story of Jack Skellington, the king of halloweentown who just doesn’t get the same thrill out of scaring people as he used to. Jack finds a magical portal in the woods that takes him to Christmas Town. He doesn’t understand anything about it, but Jack becomes obsessed with celebrating Christmas. Hijinks ensue, fueled by miscommunication and false interpretations based on different perspectives and experiences. In other words, it’s a classic comedy with a spooky veneer.
If you’re interested in learning more about how the movie was made, Netflix has a show called “The Holiday Movies That Made Us” and they have an episode about TNBC. I watched it last night and learned so many things!
For example, the movie is called Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, but Tim Burton didn’t direct it. A stop-motion animator named Henry Selick directed it, which makes sense once you learn that TNBC was the world’s first feature-length stop-motion animation film. The crew took more than 100,000 frames over 2 years, moving each character’s figurine just a few millimeters between every shot.
Tim Burton had supreme creative control over the film even though he was almost never in the studio. When he described his vision to the film’s art director, Deane Taylor, Burton’s only rules for the appearance of Halloweentown were that there should be no right angles and that the only colors Taylor could use were black, white, and orange. Upon hearing that in the Netflix show, I of course immediately went to youtube to rewatch the movie’s opening scene and check if Taylor had followed the rules. I spotted a little bit of green and maybe some purple, but that could have been a lighting trick. If there are any lighting designers listening to this, please let me know your thoughts. Also, your work seems like pure magic to me.
But this is a worldbuilding podcast, not a lighting podcast, so I should probably talk about some worldbuilding. Honestly, most of my worldbuilding complaints when I consume fiction are about things that don’t make sense given the rules of the world. I guess other people might think of them as plot holes or inconsistencies, like when Diana and Steve use a stolen museum plane to fly from DC to Cairo in Wonder Woman 84. It’s just not realistic given the rules of our world. But my propensity for following rules makes it difficult for me to analyze worlds that are supposed to be nonsense, which is how I would describe the world of TNBC.
When I say worldbuilding, I typically mean constructing a coherent environment and history and culture for a world. But for Tim Burton, or more Likely Rick Heinrichs, the visual consultant Burton tasked with bringing his creative vision to life in the studio, worldbuilding seems to be based on feelings or vibes or atmospheres. Halloween Town is dark and spooky and foreboding, and the citizens there are gruesome creatures who spend all year preparing for Halloween and self identify as “not mean.” That may be less detailed planning than I usually put into my worlds, but it made a world nevertheless. That world has rules that I try to identify in a game I call Overthinking Tiny Details in a Piece of Fiction Meant to Entertain. It’s a horrible name for a game, but a great way to distract my anxious brain so it doesn’t fixate on things that happen IRL.
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Rules of the World
Let’s start with the opening scene of the movie, where a narrator (voiced by Patrick Stewart, who was probably filming the sixth season of Next Gen at the same time)... says this:
“ `Twas a long time ago, longer now than it seems, in a place
that perhaps you've seen in your dreams. For the story that you are
about to be told, took place in the holiday worlds of old. Now, you've
probably wondered where holidays come from. If you haven't, I'd say it's
time you begun.”
The shot zooms in on a forest clearing surrounded by trees with strange doors carved into them, each one seeming to represent a different holiday. There are seven of them: Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Halloween, and what looks like Fourth of July maybe?
From this scene, we learn that there are holiday worlds that are distinct but still accessible from our world. Obviously the doors in the clearing transport you to those different holiday worlds, but I think the clearing exists in every world, like this is the one magical place where all the worlds overlap.
I say that because the opening scene also tells us that Nightmare Before Christmas is a frame narrative, a story within a story like The Princess Bride or 1001 Nights. In fact, my only real complaint about the movie is that the narrator doesn’t come back at the end to complete the frame. So we start the movie in our world, the human one, and then we go through one of the doors to Halloween Town. When Jack comes to a clearing and makes his way to Christmas Town, there are six doors, not seven. So it’s not like Jack leaves Halloween Town, enters our world’s clearing, and then transfers over to Christmas Town. He can just use his own clearing. Maybe I’m belaboring this point and maybe it’s only interesting to me, but I love thinking about places that overlap between worlds.
As a kid, I developed a fascination with faeries and all things fae that I still have as an adult. A common trope in faerie stories is the idea of someone crossing over into the faerie realm from our world for one of three reasons. Maybe they were in the wrong place at the wrong time, like Nora, the protagonist in Emily Croy Barker’s A Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic. I remember reading that book in one of my Interstellar Medium classes in grad school -- not like later that day but literally in the back row of the classroom like one of the cool book nerds -- and thinking that it was pretty good. Sometimes people are brought to the faerie realm, like Oisin, the legendary Irish warrior who was picked up by Niamh, a literal faerie princess, and taken to Tir na nOg (land of the young) in what I think has to be one of literature’s weirdest drive-by booty calls. Still others find themselves in the Faerie realm because they had spent their life looking for the places where our two worlds touched, places like Faerie rings and stone circles that mark a place of powerful liminality. Alix E. Harrow’s 10,000 Doors of January has characters who do this, but they’re not specifically looking for faerie worlds.
So yeah, I think it’s an interesting, albeit possibly unintentional, feature of the TNBC universe that all of the worlds share this magical holiday clearing.
To be totally honest with you, I didn’t rewatch the entire movie in prepping for this episode because it’s only available on Disney+ and I already spend enough money to make this show. But I did watch the opening scene and the musical numbers on youtube… repeatedly. That didn’t give me much to go off of, but I was able to pick out one interesting thing about the world in the songs: In “What’s This,” Jack notes that “absolutely no one’s dead” but later on, a young child says he hopes Jack isn’t dead. This reminds me of a conversation I’ve had with my partner about smells. I have a really strong sense of smell. Strong enough that I once got into an uber and asked the driver “How many dogs do you have?” instead of “Do you have dogs?” It’s my secret superpower, but it also means I smell everything, so I’ve adopted a rather generous definition of “bad smell.” To me, something smells bad if it smells wrong. So a foot that smells like a foot or cat poop that smells like cat poop. These aren’t bad smells as long as they smell how they’re supposed to. This ties back to Nightmare Before Christmas in a roundabout way because it seems like it’s okay to be a dead thing in Halloweentown if you’re supposed to be dead.
I don’t know what that means for Halloweentown citizens’ view on the afterlife. And I don’t know if that means the dead citizens can die twice. But also, the film’s staff and crew had enough work to do just making the damn movie -- no one had ever done a stop-motion project like this before -- so I’ll admit that it probably wasn’t high on their priority list to construct a complete and coherent afterlife system for the residents of Halloween Town.
Okay, so I wasn’t very successful in finding rules to describe the Nightmare Before Christmas world, but I did say it was a nonsense world. Instead of rules, let me leave you with some quick questions I had after watching the movie.
Where is this forest with the holiday tree clearing?
Why does Jack know what mistletoe is, but not snow?
Why does Jack trust a group of children to kidnap Santa Claus? They’re trick or treaters and Jack didn’t give them any treats!
How many people live in Halloween Town, and are all kinds of spooky creatures represented?
Where do holidays actually come from?
The movie shows us that there are 7 different holiday worlds: Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Halloween, and the Fourth of July. Obviously this is a very US-centric selection, but The Nightmare before Christmas was made in the US mostly by people from the US, so it makes sense that it would focus on the major US Holidays. The narrator implies that the story is supposed to explain where holidays come from, but unless you actually believe we have holidays because they seeped their way into our culture through magical tree doors, the movie didn’t deliver on its promise. So here are some things you might not have known about where our holidays come from.
Some of them are obvious, like the Fourth of July. I don’t need to tell you about that, and also I like to think that if the movie were being made today, it would have featured Juneteenth instead as a more accurate choice for Independence Day. Thanksgiving also has pretty obvious origins, at least the way Americans do it, but Harvest festivals have been celebrated by pretty much every culture that has ever existed. You know, since humans developed agriculture about 10,000 years ago and finally had crops to harvest.
It’s easy to say that Valentine’s Day was made up by greeting card companies to sell more stuff, but Pope Galasius I established St. Valentine’s Day to commemorate a martyred saint (though there’s some disagreement about exactly who this saint was and what he did because there are a few different stories that seem to fit the bill). But the holiday actually goes further back than that, at least to the ancient Roman holiday Lupercalia which promoted health and fertility. Similarly, St. Patrick’s day was officially established by the Catholic church in 1631, but had been celebrated in Ireland for centuries before that to honor their legendary figure who is said to have introduced Christianity to Ireland.
Christmas, Halloween, and Easter are all adapted versions of ancient pagan holidays associated with the winter solstice, Harvest, and Spring equinox, respectively. Halloween is probably the youngest of them, derived from the Celtic festival Samhain, which was common practice in Ireland about 2000 years ago
I guess the moral of this episode is that holidays are made up, or they were taken from someone else and changed to suit the dominant culture at the time. That doesn’t mean they aren’t special, because of course it’s a good idea to have days dedicated to different values. I don’t want to yuck anyone’s holiday yums here. But if you struggle with holidays sometimes, hopefully this episode can help relieve some of the pressure. Holidays are only as important as you want them to be.
That said, happy new year! Or happy Saturday. Either way, I hope you have a safe and relaxing day.
On another note, my birthday is coming up! On January 8, I’ll be turning 26, entering the last year of my mid-20s, and all I want for my birthday is to share imaginary worlds with more people. So, if you feel inclined, please share your favorite episode of the show with one other person this week. It would make this almost birthday girl very happy.
Enough about me. If you want to start a creative project but need a little help getting started, here’s a prompt: Imagine a world characterized by your favorite holiday. What does it look like? What do people there value? Take your imagination and turn it into a story, drawing, or song. Then, if you’re comfortable, share your work on twitter or instagram and tag @ExolorePod or send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you want to support my worldbuilding work, the first way is to rate and review the show on apple podcasts. It’s free and it really does make a difference. Second, you can support me on patreon. Your monthly support would make it possible for me to continue working on this passion project of mine. So please head on over to patreon.com/goastromo if you’re able.
If you liked this episode, be sure to share it with your friends and subscribe to the show. That way, you can catch me next time on another world.