[Ho-ho-ho, Overthinkers! To get us in the holiday spirit, here’s an interesting analysis of The Nightmare Before Christmas from guest writer Justin Bortnick – Ed.]
‘Twas a long time ago, though not as long as it seems,
in a year we refer to as 1993.
But the story that you are about to be told
has been kept locked away since that time of old …
Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas has been a family favourite for the period between October and December for nearly two decades. The story of Jack, the Pumpkin King of Halloween Town, and his attempt to commandeer control of Christmas from Santa Claus, the jolly ruler of Christmas Town, has worked its way into the hearts of children and adults alike. The franchise has become a marketing juggernaut, selling apparel, mugs, keychains, and every other product imaginable onto which characters’ faces might be plastered. The story of the film seems straightforward enough: Jack, tired of the monotony of Halloween, stumbles across the existence of Christmas. Jack arranges for “Sandy Claws,” as he refers to Santa, to be kidnapped so that he might take over the holiday for a year. “Consider this a vacation Sandy, a reward. It’s your turn to take it easy,” Jack explains to a protesting Mr. Claws. As a squirming Sandy is dragged away, it is clear that he is not at all pleased with the hijacking of his holiday – or is he? As we will soon uncover, Sandy Claws was not only complacent in his own kidnapping, but knew it was coming before it even occurred.
As the Coots/Gillespie Christmas standard “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” tells us, Santa “knows when you are sleeping, he knows when you’re awake.” In order to achieve his momentous task of delivering presents to all of the world’s good children in a single evening with any sort of accuracy, Santa needs to have almost godlike omniscience into the activities of the people of Earth. How else would he be able to know which children deserve gifts come Christmas morning? If one accepts the omniscient Santa argument, it must follow that Mr. Claws has full knowledge of Jack’s plan ages before he is kidnapped. Jack certainly makes no attempt to hide his efforts, even replacing the “Days To Halloween” counter in the centre of Halloween Town with one labeled “Days To Christmas.” Sandy has been at the job of “making Christmas,” as Jack puts it, for a long time. Sandy’s modern aspect dates to at least the early 1800s, which means he’s been at it for about two hundred years without a break. Is it so difficult to imagine, then, that when offered the chance at a vacation by another holiday professional such as himself, he would spring at the opportunity?
Some might argue that while Sandy Claws does indeed possess the all-knowing powers which are ascribed to him above, his pansophy only applies to the activities of children, and not to those of adults such as Jack Skellington. At this point it is important to examine who exactly Jack sends to kidnap Sandy Claws. Apart from a young corpse boy, Lock, Shock and Barrel are the only children seen to live in Halloween Town. They are the only citizens known to engage in uniquely childlike activities, being the town’s trick-or-treaters. These three are certainly on Sandy’s “naughty” list, as their primary employer is the film’s villain, Oogie Boogie. The moment Jack instructs them to kidnap Christmas Town’s jolly patron, the proverbial cat is let out of the bag. Sandy knows exactly what their plans are, and the fact that these three children were on their way to his home. Indeed, the first time Sandy appears on-screen, he is in the process of double-checking his naughty/nice list, commenting on how there are barely any naughty children this year. Obviously those names that are naughty will stand out even more due to their rarity.
With the information in his possession, Sandy is ready for Lock, Shock and Barrel’s visit. The movie displays them jumping towards him with a large sack, and a cut to black. The next time we see them, they are returning to Halloween Town with Sandy in tow, trapped within the bag. Let us compare, for a moment, the relative sizes of these characters. The trick-or-treaters are diminutive, while Sandy is large both in relative height and girth. Furthermore, Mrs. Claws has just been shown to be in the next room, preparing food for Sandy’s Christmas flight. Surely, she would have heard the scuffle if there had been any true resistance from her husband. The only way that Lock, Shock and Barrel are able to achieve their feat is if Sandy allows them to do so.
When, at the climax of the film, Jack successfully defeats Oogie Boogie and rescues Sandy Claws from his clutches, Sandy puts on a large show of being angry. He fumes about how nothing in Halloween Town makes sense, and how it is a good thing that he’s Santa Claus, because he’s the only one with the ability to set things right. However, he is not angry about being kidnapped. If he is upset at all, more about the disruption of his vacation due to Jack’s poor management of Christmas. His tantrum is revealed to be a façade when, a few minutes later, he flies over Halloween Town, giving it the gift of its first-ever snowfall. Sandy recognizes that despite Jack’s failure to provide him with a restful experience, the attempt was pure, and rewards the Pumpkin King’s efforts.
The final and perhaps strongest piece of evidence comes from the epilogue. The scene, while cut from the film, was included on both the original soundtrack issued by Disney and the 2008 album “Nightmare Revisited,” where Disney collaborated with various popular artists to produce a 15th Anniversary cover album. The closing, as with the opening, is a poem narrated by Sandy Claws, and provides one last look at Jack and Sandy many years after the film’s events. The poem reads as follows:
And finally, everything worked out just fine.
Christmas was saved, though there wasn’t much time.
But after that night, things were never the same–
Each holiday now knew the other one’s name.
And though that one Christmas things got out of hand,
I’m still rather fond of that skeleton man.
So, many years later I thought I’d drop in,
And there was old Jack still looking quite thin,
With four or five skeleton children at hand
Playing strange little tunes in their xylophone band.
And I asked old Jack, “Do you remember the night
When the sky was so dark and the moon shone so bright?
When a million small children pretending to sleep
Nearly didn’t have Christmas at all, so to speak?
And would, if you could, turn that mighty clock back,
To that long, fateful night. Now, think carefully, Jack.
Would you do the whole thing all over again,
Knowing what you know now, knowing what you knew then?”
And he smiled, like the old pumpkin king that I knew,
Then turned and asked softly of me, “Wouldn’t you?”
Here we see that despite the passage of time, and the fact that their actual contact with one another in the film was exceedingly brief, Jack and Sandy have remained friends, to the point where if they were given the opportunity, they would repeat the events of the film again.
With the evidence lined up as it is, there is almost no other conclusion that can be drawn save that Sandy Claws, in an attempt to take a much-needed vacation from the stress and effort required to manage a holiday as large as Christmas, was a willing participant in his own abduction. He slyly used his foreknowledge of Jack’s plans to escape his duties: he could never take a break on his own, but under the guise of a kidnapping, he could easily skip off for a bit. Read this way, the film becomes a web of deceit and manipulation, where Sandy Claws, the ultimate puppet master, pulls every character’s strings.
Justin Bortnick is a bumbling but good-natured literature-type currently stationed in the American northeast. He spends most of his time lost inside of dusty tomes or writing short creative works. If you find yourself simpatico with his particular brand of weird, you can follow him on Tumblr or Twitter.
[What do you think, Overthinkers? Was Santa Claus shirking his elven duty to the children of the world? Or was he suffering from ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ in his quick forgiveness of Jack? Sound off in the comments! – Ed.]
I think that Sandy appreciated the break, but I don’t think that he had any foreknowledge of it. His omniscience, I believe, is limited not by the age, but by locale. All things on earth are known to him, but the other holiday lands are different dimensions entirely. Neither Christmas Town nor Halloween Town even knew of each other’s existence until the events of this story unfolded. Lock, Shock, & Barrel would not have been on Sandy’s “naughty list” because they had never experienced Christmas before, not even the coal-in-your-stocking variety, and he had never even imagined their existence.
He may be large and they tiny, but they are quick and nasty, while he is fat and old, and probably disinclined to use force against children, especially when taken unawares. I think it’s perfectly reasonable that L, S, & B could have captured him without a fuss. I will concede the point that he probably appreciated his brief respite once he got used to it – I’ll even add that part of his anger upon being rescued likely was at himself for not working harder to escape; he felt guilty, perhaps, at enjoying the moments of rest.
I definitely don’t think his friendship with Jack was an instance of Stockholm Syndrome… he’s Santa. He’s likely to be forgiving, once realizing that Jack’s heart was in the right place. In fact, I think that he has come to care for Jack so deeply (and wouldn’t you, if you thought you were all alone in the world, shouldering massive responsibility, with no one who truly understood… and then you learned you had a peer… and he was actually a cool guy who you could get along with? wouldn’t you come to care for him deeply, no matter how rarely you saw each other?) that the reason he would “do the whole thing all over again” is because changing the events of the film would jeopardize their relationship, and that’s not something he’d be willing to risk.
Thanks for taking the time to write such a thoughtful response. My reply is this: if I grant you your proposition that Santa’s omniscience is limited not by the age of the individual, but by the locale, the rest of that argument falls apart. Even if he had no knowledge of Lock, Shock and Barrel prior to the film, the moment they set foot in Christmas Town he would have been aware of their presence. One may, I suppose, argue that Santa was still unaware of them, being very busy preparing for the holiday, but that strikes me as a bit weak, especially if we grant him the locale-based omniscience you propose. Christmas Town is the epicentre of Santa’s jurisdiction, and I refuse to believe that Santa is not the master of his domain.
I’d argue that locale-based omniscience makes a bit more sense. If he only delivered presents to children that lived on earth, why would need to observe the actions of the elves in his domain?
If he knew EVERYTHING that happened in Christmas Town, I’d assume that he would have dealt directly with Jack Skellington. From what I remember, this is the first time that the holiday realms (realms? Lands? kingdoms?) crossed paths, so Santa probably would have been alarmed by a Skeleton Man. At the time, Jack didn’t really have a “plan”, and committed several acts of robbery while in the realm. If Santa had any reasonable level of surveillance, I assume he’d have at least said “Hello”.
Now, if specifically we were supposing locale age based scrying abilities, then I’d debate if Lock, Shock, and Barrel might even count as children. If many of the denizens of Halloween Town are supposed to fulfill tropes present in Halloween (vampires, werewolves, skeletons, clowns, corpses, etc), then Lock, Shock, and Barrel would be the representations of “Trick or Treating”. That tradition goes back at least to the 1960s (although apparently there are older forms of it – wiki it!), so unless the trick or treaters are fulfilling legacy roles, they were at least 33 years old each at the time of the movie’s making, much older than anyone whom I’d consider a child.
Although I suppose you could argue about what REALLY makes someone a child at heart, but I think that’s one of those philosophical questions that’s been heavy handedly addressed from a few dozen direct to video animated features.
Actually, another assumption that you’re making is that Santa’s omniscience works on individuals who aren’t humans, elves (this one might not even be true), or reindeer.
I’m beginning to wonder if it’s not overreaching altogether to claim omniscience for Santa. After all, if he knew EVERYthing, then he wouldn’t have gotten caught off-guard by the terrible weather in that other holiday classic, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”…
Minor quibble, since I have most of the movie memorized line-for-line: There are a few other children or childlike characters that seem to hang out a little. For example, one is a rather large “baby” consistently with its “mother;” another is a batlike kid that walks on the tips of its wings and dangles its feet in a disturbingly adorable fashion.
I’d have to go with Genevieve. I assume Sandy only has omniscience when it came to children in the regular dimension. And I’d keep it specifically to children, too, explaining the Rudolph conundrum and how he didn’t know there was a plot afoot in Halloweentown.
And even if it’s all children Sandy has knowledge of, no matter what dimension, it it makes sense for a restriction to human children. I don’t think a single citizen of Halloweentown is actually a human, though. This could also explain why Sandy didn’t know how Jack had been running around Christmastown.
Another nugget to explore, though, is how Sandy does, indeed, set things right. This isn’t the only story about Sandy/Santa where he almost doesn’t do the whole Christmas thing, and not just because fog showed up. The Year Without a Santa Claus, for example, shows him deliberately take that break. In that story, he orders the elves to stop working*. In Nightmare, we see that the elves are all working diligently during the little montage. So does this mean they keep working, without orders? Or did Sandy tell them to keep working because he knew he’d be back? It could support the argument that he somehow knew he was going to be kidnapped, but then, ultimately, his motivations for doing so may be different in this case. For if he anticipates needing to continue doing the Christmas-thing after the kidnapping, he must anticipate getting released in time to do so. Or are his elves just a bunch of proletariat workers that have been commoditized and turned into machines, to the point where they keep performing their assigned tasks, regardless of the presence of the boss or not? But anyway, why would he be okay with being kidnapped, then? Perhaps he saw the good it would do Jack, Halloweentown, etc., and decided to go along with the kidnapping- which then goes right back to your points about the scuffle. But unless the elves are on auto-pilot, there had to have been some sort of communication between them and Sandy.
Unrelated: I always wonder what happened to the Easter Bunny in all that. Poor thing looks positively terrified, even jumps back into the bag- I wonder if Easter was messed up that year.
*It also ends with Santa “bringing” snow to a place that had never experienced snow before.
It could just be that the elves have utter and complete faith in him, and haven’t the slightest reason to doubt that he will return and that things will go as per normal, and that’s why they keep producing.
…which, along with much else included here, points more towards omnipotence than omniscience. Although, omnipotence once again problematizes his failure to win out in that scuffle against Lock, Shock, & Barrel… which I still feel has more to do with him being unwilling to fight (apparent) children than with any inability or foreknowledge on his part.
The Easter Bunny is returned home safe and sound presumably. Jack tells Lock, Shock and Barrel to bring him home first before making another attempt on Santa.
You comment that you don’t believe any denizens of Halloween Town are human. What about Shock. She’s a witch, but aren’t witches human? There are several other hags gadding about as well. I’ve always been under the impression that witch is a profession, not a species.
Heh, I knew Jack says for them to return the Easter Bunny, but given their demonstrated inability to actually follow orders, I have always wondered if they actually did. I mean, they’re presented as being highly mischievous, so even as a kid, I thought maybe they kept the Easter Bunny as a pet (read: prisoner) to play (read: mess) with. Not because they’re sadistic, per se, but because they just like being naughty with a purpose. Like how they rationalize disobeying the order to keep Oogie Boogie out of it. But anyway, since they don’t actually show what happens, I guess it’ll never really be known.
Shock’s skin is a distinctly different, less fleshy/realistic color than the scared humans shown during Jack’s attempt at Christmas, and the hags and witches around Halloweentown fit that description, too. I think in Halloweentown, the character IS their profession, which is actually a trope or traditional Halloween archetype- they’re a living embodiment of it. So Shock is a living embodiment of Trick-or-Treating (along with Lock and Barrel), and the witches and hags are physical manifestations… haggery…? I don’t know how to really put it, but I think being witch, werewolf, hag, mad scientist, even mayor, etc.- it supersedes them being human. I’m not saying in reality being a witch makes you unhuman, though, and I didn’t mean to come across that way. But I do think that in Halloweentown, it does.
I’m with Gab – the denizens of Halloween Town are archetypes, not races/species or professions. After all, I don’t remember any indication that the werewolf (I seem to recall one…) transforms into a human whenever it’s daytime, or the moon isn’t full (if it ever isn’t…)
A couple of folks here have used the “if Santa is omniscient in Christmastown how did he not know Jack was there” argument. To me, that just solidifies his complicity in the kidnapping. Do we really know that Jack stole all of those things? Or did Santa actually apprehend Jack in Christmastown and orchestrate the entire kidnapping himself?
If the two were co-conspirators from the beginning the entire “first meeting” after Santa was kidnapped could have been an act. When Santa got out of Oogie Boogie’s to save Christmas, what did he do? He held his nose and magically flew out of the pipe. Are we really to believe that some rope around his wrists kept him from getting away? Or was it rather that, upon hearing about Jack’s failure to recreate Christmas he finally realized it was time to reassume his responsibilities?
If Santa knew about his “vacation” then being delivered to oogie boogie wasn’t part of the plan. Lock, Shock and Barrel simply went rogue. Santa was probably expecting to be put up in a hotel or something where the kids would feed him delicious food and let him relax. Instead he was shoved into a narrow pipe and you can tell by his face expression this was not right. Think about it would Santa just be like “Yeah try to squeeze me down that tiny pipe.” Lock “Ok and we will give your butt a massage with a plunger, pitchfork and broom!” Santa “Oh yeah that’ll feel nice and not weird and uncomfortable at all.”
After watching Nightmare for the 10th time this season it occurred to me that Santa easily left Hallooween just by holding his nose. Couldn’t he have done that a long time ago? Why did he wait until Jack came to rescue them to suddenly reveal this magical ability?