Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, is a quirky piece of cinema, in the very best of ways. A nod to the old stop-motion holiday specials of the late 60’s, its peculiar charm and style are marked by Burton’s unmistakable, Edward Goreyesque visuals that seem to come alive with a memorable eeriness, filling the story with as much Halloween mischief as Yuletide merriment.
With its flair for the macabre, Nightmare strikes a bit of a discordant note with more typical representations of the holiday season, stubbornly refusing to dwell simply on the regular themes of good cheer and happiness that we’ve come to expect. Burton places it all against a darker and more ghastly backdrop, one embroidered with all manner of spooks and goblins, all of which are played in direct contrast to the joyful anticipation of Christmas. Though I submit that its style may not sit well with everyone, it may just be that Nightmare’s treatment of Christmas unlocks a way of understanding the season that, while dressed up as lighthearted children’s fare, hits a bit closer to the mark than it first appears.
It’s no secret that Advent is a hard thing to come by these days. The secular holiday season, which arrives without fail every November 1st to renew its annual struggle against the soul’s peace and harmony, seems a bit at odds with the character of serenity with which one should await the coming of the Lord. If left unchecked, the relentlessly joyful and triumphant tide of commercials, music, advertisements, and TV programs (which all too often seem a bit estranged from what exactly there is to be so joyful and triumphant about) can easily stifle the true spirit of the season.
Advent is the nighttime of the Church, when the sun appears for what seems to be only a few hours each day before it sinks again, plunging the world into a long, cold darkness. In an age when central heating and electric lights appear to safeguard us from all but the occasional snow-logged traffic jam, it can be hard to remember that winter can mean something much more threatening. Starvation, disease, and death from the cold and wild animals were common worries to those that lived only a few generations ago, for whom “the most wonderful time of the year“ also brought its share of fears and troubles. Though modern technology has long since provided a solution to these concerns, they still seem embedded in the traditional practices of many of the cultures of Northern Europe which, while the source of many of our more American, familiar Christmas traditions, also have their share of darker, less marketable ones.
In Germany and Austria, December evenings are more than just occasions for beneficent saints to go from house to house and give toys to good little children, but are also haunted by sinister spirits that seem more befitting of Halloween than of Advent or Christmas. The devilish Krampus or Perchta, a few of St. Nicholas’ less savory companions, also roam the streets at night, searching like wild animals driven lean and hungry by the bitter elements for children who haven’t been so good that year.
Similar practices found their way into the British Isles as well, where the telling of ghost stories around the winter solstice provided a way for young and old to reflect on both the coming of the next world and the inhabitants thereof during the long, cold nights. A popular tradition well into the nineteenth century, it even influenced what may be considered the father of all holiday specials, wherein the biggest Scrooge of them all is driven to embrace the joy of Christmas due to a series of strange and ghostly visitations. As can be seen in A Christmas Carol however, these eerie, even nightmarish depictions of the dark side of winter serve a much greater purpose than merely something to scare the kiddies to bed on time.
The very miracle of Christmas is that the coming of Christ brought salvation to a world haunted by sin and death. Though they have a fairly straightforward connection with the dangers associated with a time of physical darkness, the demons of Yuletide folk tradition can be seen in terms of a spiritual darkness as well. A season to reflect on mankind’s lonely exile from God, the days leading up to Christmas remind us that Christ arrived at a time when man was still held captive in sin’s icy grip, as helpless against his own demons as he was against the bitter elements themselves.
Advent is the time when the peace and joyful expectation of the Lord appear not in the absence of suffering and adversity, but in spite of it. A far cry from the placid scene described in Clement Clark Moore’s beloved poem, even the night before the very first Christmas was probably a bit more of a nightmare itself. Vulnerable, heavy with child, and far from home, Mary and Joseph went door to door through a dirty, crowded, and likely dangerous city in search of a place to stay. Finding none, they were forced to retreat out into the night and wild to take shelter in a cold, drafty cave.
Likewise, the night watch of the shepherds of Bethlehem would’ve occurred in reality under similarly perilous conditions. Not exactly the placid pastoral scene depicted on greeting cards, an all-night vigil would in all likelihood have been a much more anxious affair. Wolves, lions, and bandits would’ve been chief on the mind, giving the angel’s adjuration to “not be afraid” a bit more contextual force. They, and the nations they came to represent lived as a people wrapped in fear, on guard against the dangers to both the body and soul. But it is the news of the birth of mere child in an impoverished hut in the midst of the wilderness that banishes both, amidst the darkest night and bitter cold.
If all Christmas was nothing more than a time for superficial cheer and merriment (as the culture would have us believe), there would be little reason to take it to heart, and the lengths to which the secular holiday season goes to rob the average person of their peace and sanity would only tinge the affair with a bit of cruel irony. But the coming of Christ (and the preparation therefor) deals with something greater—deliverance from the coils of a fallen world and the entry into a life of warmth and grace. Far from the sugary-sweetness of the secular Holidays, it is the darkness and exile of Advent that make the joy and hope of Christmas shine out all the brighter.
Though they may seem little more than distractions in comparison to the troubles of Christmases past, we would do well to remember that the Yuletide demons are still as active today as they ever were, often making a moment of peace and quiet as difficult to find as a room at the inn. However, we must also remember that even in the face of all the trouble and anxiety we may encounter this season, we still have reason to rejoice. For unto us a child is born, at midnight, among the beasts, in piercing cold, and in whom we find redemption from every worry and fear.