Making Christmas: the enduring legacy of Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas


Movies and Christmas go together like roast potatoes and gravy, and rightly so. It’s cold outside, you’re soporific from all the festive feasting, and the terrestrial telly bigwigs lay on a banquet of old favourites and shiny new blockbusters; conditions are perfect for unadulterated movie binges.

We now live in a world where ‘Christmas movie’ is a legitimate genre. While there are many obscure Yuletide films you’ve probably never heard of (and Vanessa Hudgens is defrosted every winter for yet another made-for-Netflix Xmas rom-com), few have truly endured. One such movie, however, is Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas (TNBC).

Now, some might contest TNBC’s inclusion in the Christmas movie genre, proclaiming it a Halloween movie. But while scholars (me) have deduced its most fertile viewing time is between Halloween and Christmas – essentially the season within which the film is actually set – the very fact that a film with such macabre themes could remain a Christmas classic is certainly part of its intrigue. 

The ‘anti-Christmas’ movie

Because you think “Christmas movie” you think saccharine, you think wholesome. You don’t think demonic scientists, gambling maggot-filled boogie men, or dismembered heads. 

In this sense, it’s almost the ‘anti-Christmas’ movie. However, instead of putting people off, it’s opened itself up to a whole new audience: goths, cult-film enthusiasts, self-proclaimed nerds; ask anyone who considers themselves even remotely alternative and they’ll tell you it’s their favourite festive film. As an angsty eyeliner-covered teen myself, trying to figure out my personality and place in the world, TNBC helped me feel included and validated at a time of year where the abundance of enforced joy made me feel personally attacked.

Burton and the gothic

The Tim Burton aesthetic plays a huge part in cementing TNBC as part of the Christmas canon. Burton’s films have a typically Victorian look to them – the set and costume design are always reminiscent of the 19th Century Gothic revival; a motif reinforced by the fact that iPhones, laptops and other modern-day tech don’t exist in Burton’s universe.

Why is that relevant? Because virtually all of our current Christmas traditions are inventions of those same industrious Victorians. When they weren’t busy revolutionising industry and enacting socio-political reforms, the Victorians were also taking back Christmas. We have them to thank for Christmas cards, crackers, the big family meal, mistletoe; Prince Albert himself popularised the decorated tree. These traditions have permeated our culture to the degree that we subconsciously associate Victoriana with the festive period. One look at Burton’s Neo-Gothic imagery and, whether we realise it or not, our Yuletide spidey-sense is all a-tingle.

The art of stop motion

It’s not just Burton’s Dickensian inclinations that make TNBC such a festive thirst-trap. His use of medium plays an integral part in its enduring success at this time of year. Stop-motion animation is an art form intrinsically linked to feelings of Christmassy nostalgia. It all began in the 1960s with Rankin Bass Animated Entertainment, a US production company specialising in stop-motion animation. Their biggest triumph was 1964’s ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’ which remains one of the most successful Christmas specials in television history. Riding the wave of Rudolph’s success, Rankin Bass went on to become a prolific producer of Christmas animations. They dominated the next two-and-a-half decades with their own brand of animated cheer, meaning those of our parents’ generation in particular will associate the medium with the season – once again providing TNBC with a new and unexpected faction of fans.

Another universally loved festive special, ‘The Snowman’ is, of course, another animation. Released in 1982 and making regular appearances on the Christmas telly line-ups ever since, ‘The Snowman’ is a film that Millennials and Gen Z-ers alike – Burton’s biggest stans – will have grown up with, reiterating the notion that animation is synonymous with Christmas. It’s a medium that makes many a festive cameo – from the clay puppet characters in ‘Elf’ to Aardman Studios’ ‘Arthur Christmas’; there’s even a claymation Christmas episode of ‘Community’. 

There’s something undeniably enchanting about stop-motion animation. Bringing inanimate objects to life is pure magic – and the ‘magic’ of Christmas can soften even the Grinchiest of hearts. ‘Tis the season to suspend belief and indulge in some whimsy. Let us all pray that Tim Burton doesn’t hitch a ride on Disney’s ‘live-action!’ bandwagon (because that would be utterly horrifying). We accept Jack Skellington and his gruesome cohorts because they’re cute clay critters: look how adorable they are as they kidnap and torture Santa Claus! How Christmassy! 

A Christmas craftsmanship

After a brief unpacking, it’s clear that a lot of calculated decision-making went into The Nightmare Before Christmas. It’s these shrewd choices by Burton that have helped carve out its legacy as an eternal festive favourite. It certainly exhibits a level of film-making and attention to detail not often found in the festive film genre.

It’s a rare gem of a Christmas movie that has something for everyone: the grown-ups will admire the sheer craftsmanship, the kids will enjoy the charming delight of the clay puppets; the Scrooges among us can revel in the morbid imagery and the die-hard Christmas-lovers can swoon over the romantic subplot and – SPOILER ALERT! – happy ending. Due to the longevity of its use (many basic animation techniques were invented by – you guessed it – the Victorians), stop-motion animation imbues films with a timeless quality; another factor in the continuing popularity and ageless-ness of TNBC after its initial release twenty-seven years ago.

The Nightmare Before Christmas will undoubtedly continue to delight a truly diverse array of fans for decades to come. But perhaps we can now close the case on whether or not it’s a Christmas movie. Evidently, the proof is in the (Christmas) pudding.

Artwork by @ruthdrawsthings