My Favorite Holiday Movie, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Reminds Us to Keep the ‘Hallow’ in Halloween
Just last night I went to the 30th anniversary screening of Tim Burton’s animated classic, The Nightmare Before Christmas. It’s witty, moving, hilarious, and exquisitely accomplished — the kind of mainstream entertainment that Disney used to release, before it joined the Dark Side.
I wanted to recommend this movie for broad family viewing for all kids over, say, six. But recently I’d been talking to my friend Eric Metaxas about Halloween (the movie’s theme) and he had some cautions. After his conversion, he said, he’d heard from veteran Christians that Halloween was purely a feast of the occult, and ought to be shunned and avoided. I’ve heard similar assertions from good people, and the question got me thinking.
The Souls Who Have Left Us Behind
First let’s get the ecumenical issue out of the way: Halloween developed as the Catholic baptism of pre-Christian winter festivals, a way to redirect pagan interest in ghosts toward Christian doctrines such as the Communion of Saints. Indeed, the feast’s name comes from “All Hallow’s Eve,” since it’s the night before the Feast of All Saints. Equally important, November 2 is the Catholic feast of All Souls, which remembers the dead who haven’t yet made it to heaven, but are still being cleansed in purgatory.
Now while I believe in that (as high Anglican C.S. Lewis also did), you very well may not. Indeed, the abandonment of belief in purgatory left a psychic hole in Britain after the Reformation: The dead, whom they used to pray for, were now off-limits. There’s a scholarly book, Hamlet in Purgatory, devoted to this issue, claiming that Shakespeare was trying to explore this cultural gap by writing his famous tragedy.
I wrote an essay in grad school on this subject. In the religiously divided England of Shakespeare’s time, Protestants watching Hamlet would know that the ghost of the prince’s father — who calls on him to avenge his murder — wasn’t from heaven, so he must have risen up from hell. Hence his request would have to be evil, and Hamlet shouldn’t obey him. Catholics might think the ghost was a saved soul from purgatory. So maybe Hamlet ought to slay his murderous uncle. Given that there were still plenty of Catholics in Shakespeare’s England (for instance, most of his family), that must have made productions of Hamlet … interesting.
How to Do Halloween Redemptively
But let’s leave aside the divisions in Christendom. Plenty of non-Catholic Christians still enjoy Halloween, while some Catholics have learned from their home-schooling friends to shun it. I’d like to suggest, in the light of this marvelous movie, how to handle this holiday.
First of all, we must shun and avoid like the plague anything even bordering on the occult. Ouija boards, “spirit” summoning, and costumes that invoke the devil or his fallen angels. That’s absolutely out for the obvious reason: demon possession. It’s real, and happens now more than in previous decades (if you believe the Vatican’s exorcists, who warn of a massive upsurge). And we cannot allow the slightest opening in that direction.
No Halloween, No Need for Christmas
But that doesn’t mean we need to miss the opportunities offered by this holiday to think about spiritual realities. Quite the contrary. In fact, Halloween is intimately tied to Christmas for one crucial reason: We only realize we need a Redeemer because we know that we’re going to die. An unfallen Adam wouldn’t have died, or required Jesus to die on his behalf. He wouldn’t have gotten grizzly with age, or been subject to gruesome accidents or violence. He would have viewed a Halloween celebration with absolute puzzlement, as the unfallen Eve in C.S. Lewis’ Perelandra found violence inconceivable.
But we are fallen, mortal, and subject to all the dangers out in nature. In Halloween we make a kind of sport about such horrors, as a way of whistling in the dark, or bolstering our courage. Hey, look, we can laugh at these monsters. And we can, for only one reason: because the Redeemer came, and rescued us from ultimate death. He delivered us from the demons who roam the earth like lions, seeking the ruin of souls. And so we can dress up as monsters and ghouls, if only in mockery.
Don’t Mix Up the Fall and the Redemption
What I love about the Tim Burton film is that it sees this deep connection. Its plot is simple: The denizens of Halloween Town, who live to give people hearty scares and play ghoulish pranks, decide to take over Christmas Town, and put on the holiday themselves. The results are hilarious, with little kids getting headless dolls and skeletons sliding down chimneys. Order is only restored when the firm boundary is restored between the feast that marks our fallenness, and the feast of our Redemption.
But I don’t think you can really appreciate the latter without the former. In ages of fervent faith, funeral rites were elaborate, and graveyards full of powerful art and sculpture — depicting alike the horror of bodily death, and the hope of eternal salvation. Now as we grow more secular and soulless, our graveyards are tidy and sterile, with no art of any kind. Instead of acknowledging the grimness of death and the painful, desperate need we have for Hope, all disappears into a kind of manicured uniformity. It’s hard to tell a graveyard from a golf course.
And it gets harder each year to find anything distinctively Christian about Christmas. It becomes a feast of … winter, gifts, food, and polar bears. No sign of Redemption, and no sense that we need one, since we’re stuck in denial that we’ve fallen or that we will even die.
I think a proper celebration of Halloween could actually help us mark Christmas more faithfully. But even if you disagree with me, I am sure you’ll enjoy the movie. It would take a literal Grinch not to.
John Zmirak is a senior editor at The Stream and author or co-author of ten books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Immigration and The Politically Incorrect Guide to Catholicism. He is co-author with Jason Jones of “God, Guns, & the Government.”