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Christmas stories: The Nightmare Before Christmas

Parody, to me, is at its best when it mashes two apparently incompatible cultural references together, and then builds on them in order to tease new fun out of old stories. It is not the parody which simply mocks, but the ludic, creative (in all senses) kind. Today's poem (because yes, it is a poem, not just a film) is one such. It takes Halloween and Christmas (season of horror and season of cheer) and uses the idea to give a new slant to famous Christmas stories. The problem with talking about parody is that you must at the same time talk about the texts parodied -- but at this point in this Christmas project, I think I have covered most of them. You are Ready.

You can buy the book, but while you wait, you can read the poem here.
I am sure you have all seen the film, and it is a lovely film; but before there was a film there was a poem by Tim Burton, and it is that which concerns us here. There is no Oogie Boogie or Sally, but the basic plot is recognisable. It begins with Jack's ennui:
It was late one fall in Halloweenland,
and the air had quite a chill.
Against the moon a skeleton sat,
alone upon a hill.
He was tall and thin with a bat bow tie;
Jack Skellington was his name.
He was tired and bored in Halloweenland.
"I'm sick of the scaring, the terror, the fright.
I'm tired of being something that goes bump in the night.
I'm bored with leering my horrible glances,
And my feet hurt from dancing those skeleton dances.
I don't like graveyards, and I need something new.
There must be more to life than just yelling, 'Boo!'"
I have always been a fan of the "bump in the night" phrase. Because I take my role as Calcuttagutta's designated Christmas Researcher seriously, moreover, I did a quick google search to find out the origin of the phrase. It was apparently (probably) a fairly common phrase by the turn of the last century, but one of the earliest written uses is
From ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggedy beasties
And things that go bump in the night
Good Lord, deliver us!
from The Cornish and West Country Litany, 1926. Which seems rather apropos Jack. And in not too long, the long legged beastie is joined by a ghostie, too:
Then out from a grave, with a curl and a twist,
Came a whimpering, whining, spectral mist.
It was a little ghost dog, with a faint little bark,
And a jack-o'-lantern nose that glowed in the dark.
It was Jack's dog, Zero, the best friend he had,
But Jack hardly noticed, which made Zero sad.
As an added bonus, according to one of my sources, the name of the dog is an English/Japanese pun: Zero could be translated as rei, which shares a transcription with a word meaning spirit or ghost. Leaving the puns aside, however, the plot soon thickens. As Jack wanders about, wallowing in his dismay, he stumbles on three doorways:
He stood before them, completely in awe,
His gaze transfixed by one special door.
Entranced and excited, with a slight sense of worry,
Jack opened the door to a white, windy flurry.
The poem does not specify where the two other doorways lead. There are seven in the film. The animated adaptation of the poem (see below) suggests the other two are Easter and Valentine's Day. It is the Christmas door that transfixes him, however, and he opens it onto a world of falling snow:
Jack didn't know it, but he'd fallen down
In the middle of a place called Christmas Town!
Immersed in the light, Jack was no longer haunted.
He had finally found the feeling he wanted.
Because of course Christmas is the perfect antidote to the overwhelming ennui brought on by the succession of day after day's succession of routine in the darkness; the whole purpose of the holiday is to break up that period with light and something different.
And so that his friends wouldn't think him a liar,
He took the present filled stockings that hung by the fire.
He took candy and toys that were stacked on the shelves
And a picture of Santa with all of his elves.
He took lights and ornaments and the star from the tree,
And from the Christmas Town sign, he took the big letter C.
He picked up everything that sparkled or glowed.
He even picked up a handful of snow.
He grabbed it all, and without being seen,
He took it all back to Halloween.
You will recognise Jack's actions as an unwitting (and rather less malicious) re-enactment of the Grinch's in Who-ville. When he arrives home to Halloween with the souvenirs, his fellow beasties are excited (though some are "quite scared", in a classic reversal). Having seen the glory that is Christmas, however, Jack gets increasingly envious of Santa's job (in particular the general lack of hanging out in graveyards):
"Why is it they get to spread laughter and cheer
While we stalk the graveyards, spreading panic and fear?
Well, I could be Santa, and I could spread cheer!
Why does he get to do it year after year?"
Outraged by injustice, Jack thought and he thought.
Then he got an idea. "Yes. . .yes. . .why not!"
A plan forms.
In Christmas Town, Santa was making some toys
When through the din he heard a soft noise.
He answered the door, and to his surprise,
He saw weird little creatures in strange disguise.
They were altogether ugly and rather petite.
As they opened their sacks, they yelled, "Trick or treat!"
Then a confused Santa was shoved into a sack
And taken to Halloween to see mastermind Jack.
and Jack explains his plan of a career exchange program to his kidnappee.
"My dear Mr. Claus, I think it's a crime
That you've got to be Santa all of the time!
But now I will give presents, and I will spread cheer.
We're changing places I'm Santa this year.
It is I who will say Merry Christmas to you!
So you may lie in my coffin, creak doors, and yell, 'Boo!'
And please, Mr. Claus, don't think ill of my plan.
For I'll do the best Santa job that I can."
I suspect this is what makes Jack so endearing. He is no villain setting out to ruin Christmas (where the Grinch was, but can still be loved because a: we sympathise with his reasons, somewhat, and b: he failed); his intentions are wholly good, and he is so sweetly enthusiastic about the whole thing. There are problems ahead, however:
They were packed up and ready on Christmas Eve day
When Jack hitched his reindeer to his sleek coffin sleigh,
But on Christmas Eve as they were about to begin,
A Halloween fog slowly rolled in.
Jack said, "We can't leave; this fog's just too thick.
There will be no Christmas, and I can't be St. Nick."
Then a small glowing light pierced through the fog.
What could it be?. . .It was Zero, Jack's dog!
Leaving us quite primed for a reference to a 1939 poem that has been thoroughly taken up in popular culture:
Jack said, "Zero, with your nose so bright,
Won't you guide my sleigh tonight?"
You will find, by the way, that the original Rudolph poem follows the metre of "Visit from St. Nicholas", which, in turn, quickly makes an appearance in Burton's text as well:
And to be so needed was Zero's great dream,
So he joyously flew to the head of the team.
And as the skeletal sleigh started its ghostly flight,
Jack cackled, "Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!"
And the Clement Clarke Moore references do not stop there. Having dealt with the famous ending, the opening is given a turn, emphasising the inversion of the Christmas spirit that Jack brings to proceedings:
'Twas the nightmare before Christmas, and all though the house,
Not a creature was peaceful, not even a mouse.
The stockings all hung by the chimney with care,
When opened that morning would cause quite a scare!
The children, all nestled so snug in their beds,
Would have nightmares of monsters and skeleton heads.
The moon that hung over the new-fallen snow
Cast an eerie pall over the city below,
And Santa Claus's laughter now sounded like groans,
And the jingling bells like chattering bones.
And what to their wondering eyes should appear,
But a coffin sleigh with skeleton deer.
And a skeletal driver so ugly and sick
They knew in a moment, this can't be St. Nick!
From house to house, with a true sense of joy,
Jack happily issued each present and toy.
From rooftop to rooftop he jumped and he skipped,
Leaving presents that seemed to be straight from a crypt!
Unaware that the world was in panic and fear,
Jack merrily spread his own brand of cheer.
I am not sure Jack's Christmas is all that untraditional, however. It is certainly well within the tradition of M. R. James, who would read his ghost stories to his Cambridge friends at Christmas (adaptations of the stories are still televised in Britain over the holiday); Dickens, as I have already pointed out, made quite a pointed connection between Christmas and ghosts; Lovecraft follows the same tradition in his emphasis on the idea of the dark period as belonging to the unnameable horrors.

Jack cheerfully hands out assorted deadly and/or frightening presents, including "a baby doll possessed by a demon", "a man eating plant disguised as a wreath,/And a vampire teddy bear with very sharp teeth." As a result.
There were screams of terror, but Jack didn't hear it,
He was much too involved with his own Christmas spirit!
He mistakes the horror and commotion as celebration and joy, even as they try to shoot him out of the sky. Which, in the end, they manage to do:
And away they all flew like the storm of a thistle,
Until they were hit by a well guided missile.
And as they fell on the cemetery, way out of sight,
Was heard, "Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night."
I always found this part of the poem rather heartbreaking. And it quickly gets worse:
"I thought I could be Santa, I had such belief"
Jack was confused and filled with great grief.
Not knowing where to turn, he looked toward the sky,
Then he slumped on the grave and he started to cry.
And as Zero and Jack lay crumpled on the ground,
They suddenly heard a familiar sound.
Santa comes along to tell him off, pointing out that he should not try to leave the sphere in which he was brought up (I may be extrapolating).
"My dear Jack," said Santa, "I applaud your intent.
I know wreaking such havoc was not what you meant.
And so you are sad and feeling quite blue,
But taking over Christmas was the wrong thing to do.
I hope you realize Halloween's the right place for you.
and off he goes. Jack is left alone (and you cannot help thinking that Santa is perhaps not all he is cracked up to be), until
Back home, Jack was sad, but then, like a dream,
Santa brought Christmas to the land of Halloween.
Which is what you might call a happy ending. Unless you realise that this is why we now have Christmas songs in stores well before December. I need to have a word with Jack.

I recommend you read the full poem (preferably in the book), but a perfectly adequate substitute, or even supplement, would be to listen to Christopher Lee's reading of it while watching the pretty pictures in the box below.

If you prefer Patrick Stewart, you can hear him do the reading (to the same animation) here (part two automatically follows the first).
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Comments

Tor,  25.12.14 22:02

Who'd have thunk it? Nå skulle jeg nesten ønske jeg ikke hadde sett filmen, så jeg kunne lest diktet og deretter avfeid filmen med at jeg leste diktet før det ble mainstream.
Camilla likes this