Oh, My Pop Culture Religion: The Nightmare Before Religious Syncretism

nightmare before ChristmasOne of my favorite Halloween movies is The Nightmare Before Christmas. I’m a sucker for Tim Burton and the music of Danny Elfman, and when you combine it with Christmas cheer and Halloween gothic macabre, you basically get the best Christmas/Halloween crossover extravaganza ever. But because over-analyzing things is my third-favorite hobby (next to soul-harvesting and baking), I got to thinking: could there be something more behind our stop-motion miniatures? I think there might be. The Nightmare Before Christmas is rich with lore and depth, and can serve as a cautionary tale against religious syncretism.

Religious syncretism is different from cultural appropriation. Usually cultural appropriation involves a “dominant” culture borrowing important or sacred elements from an oppressed culture for frivolous reasons. A non-Native American wearing a war bonnet as a costume or fashion accessory is a kind of cultural appropriation, because war bonnets are important spiritual and political objects worn by Native American men in tribes from the Plains region. The non-Native wearer doesn’t understand or care to understand the significance of the object. Religious syncretism involves the successful or unsuccessful melding of two belief systems, and is intimately connected with meaning. It’s precisely Jack’s search for meaning that moves him from cultural appropriation to attempting religious syncretism.

Spoilers for The Nightmare Before Christmas below, of course.

The Nightmare Before Christmas begins with the denizens of Halloween Town preparing to celebrate Halloween, their most joyous time of year. Jack Skellington, the Pumpkin King, is a brilliant, creative type and the grand marshal of the town’s yearly festivities. This year, Jack’s bored with all of the usual tropes and trappings of Halloween, and goes on a quest to find something new. Jack stumbles into Christmas Town, and is totally enamored by the holiday. He tries to recreate the magic and joy of Christmas, but fails spectacularly. In the process, the real Santa Claus (“Sandy Claws”) is kidnapped by Oogie Boogie the Boogeyman. Luckily, Jack is able to save him (and Christmas!), and learns to love his own holiday once again. Oh, and he gets the girl, who’s loved him from afar this whole time. End scene.

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So what do I mean when I say that it’s a movie packed with lore? To give you one example, our hero Jack Skellington probably comes from the Irish folktale of Stingy Jack. Stingy Jack was a drunkard, a hedonist, and a trickster. The Devil decided to find out if Jack was as bad as his reputation said he was. One night while Jack was wandering the nighttime countryside, the Devil came to meet him. Thinking his time was finally up, Jack asked the Devil if he could have one last drink before being carted off to Hell. They go to a local tavern and get drunk together, when Jack asks the Devil to pay their tab for him. Jack convinces the Devil to transform into a coin so they can pay their bill, but instead Jack stiffs the bartender and sticks the Devil-coin into his pocket. The Devil, trapped in his form by the presence of a crucifix in Jack’s pocket, begs to be released. Jack agrees, on the condition his soul will never enter Hell. The Devil agrees. Years later when Jack actually dies, he’s barred from Heaven because of his sinful life, but he’s barred from Hell because the Devil keeps his bargain. Jack’s condemned to wander the countryside for eternity, carrying a jack-o-lantern to light his way.

Stingy Jack and Jack Skellington have a lot in common. Both are crafty lovers of fun and pleasure, and their stories really get interesting when they go for a long walk away from town. Both have to trick the Devil-figure in their stories in order to get what they want. Stingy Jack will sometimes carry his jack-o-lantern, but other times it replaces his head, giving him a rough, creepy skeleton face. In Stingy Jack’s story, we have a clear cautionary tale for good Christian children. In some versions the crucifix is on a rosary in Jack’s pocket, some versions emphasize St. Peter denying Jack entrance at the gates of Heaven. There’s a clear connection to pre-Christian folk myths about trickster spirits and gods, and we can see how the old tradition of trickster spirits still has a strong influence on a presumably Christian Irish fairy tale.

A Haitian Voudou Altar, via wikipedia

A Haitian Vodou Altar, via wikipedia

There are a few different kinds of religious syncretism. The first is the idea that you can combine elements of two (or more) religions or belief systems into one. We see this all over the world, in all ages. It’s one thing to see how a religion gets absorbed into another, whether by choice or by missionary force. You see this syncretism in Haitian Vodou, where ancestor worship, animist faiths, Islam, and Catholicism combine into something new and distinct. For a great treatment of some of Vodou’s history in America and how syncretism worked in its favor, check out Pisces’ post here. A certain degree of syncretism happens in the story of Stingy Jack—elements of one kind of faith tradition are absorbed into another, naturally. This is usually the positive form of syncretism.

The clearest example of another, negative and extreme form of religious syncretism might be found in the fictional Life of Pi, where our protagonist claims to practice three religions at once. This is the kind of syncretism that often annoys people with deeply held religious conviction. That’s because it often downplays religious differences, making it seem like religious choice doesn’t really matter at all. If it doesn’t matter which God or prophet I follow, then it logically follows that I should have no problem changing their religion when asked (or told) to. In a world where religious conflict and violence has become a constant part of the twenty-four hour news cycle, this kind of syncretism can get pretty insulting pretty quickly. Positive syncretism grows more or less organically in a whole community, for good reasons, like we see with Voudou. Negative syncretism happens when an individual tries to hold to mutually exclusive religious tenants and fails to really integrate them together, without much thought or lived experience to support it.

When we meet Jack Skellington, he’s living in his own world, with his own people, and his own culture. In a lot of ways Halloween serves as the town’s official religion, with Jack as their high priest. Religion often comes with a community, a cultural heritage, special celebrations, symbols and objects, etc. We see all these things in the way Halloween Town celebrates Halloween; it can easily be a stand in for religion.

But Jack is bored with Halloween. He’s bored with his faith, because it’s not new and exciting for him anymore. So Jack does what many of us do, and goes on a journey looking for some kind of interesting spark. When he stumbles upon Christmas Town, Jack is totally thrilled! He’s so excited about this new holiday, this new culture with new beliefs that he wants to share it all with his friends in Halloween Town. He acts a lot like a person who finds a new religion and wants to evangelize his friends.

The problem is while Jack is enthusiastic, he’s easily enamored with the trappings of the holiday, but struggles with meaning. This is where we see the shift from a kind of cultural appropriation to religious syncretism. When he does search for the meaning, he still gets it wrong.

“Something’s here I cannot see! What does it mean, what does it mean?”

Jack soon has a stroke of brilliance when he imagines himself as Santa Claus. He sings:

“Just because I cannot see it doesn’t mean I can’t believe it! You know, I think this Christmas thing is not as tricky as it seems.
And why should they have all the fun, it should belong to everyone!
Not anyone, in fact, but me!…
I bet I could improve it too, and that’s exactly what I’ll do!”

So Jack not only decides to make Christmas his own, but he thinks he can do it better than any of the citizens of Christmas Town. Jack tries to make Christmas his own, but he doesn’t ever oppress the citizens of Christmas Town. Instead of taking a step back and trying to learn from the people of Christmas Town, he goes rogue and tries to combine what he already knows and believes with his Halloween ideology with what he perceives as important to Christmas. He takes a leap of faith, certainly, but totally does not understand the real meaning of Christmas (any of them) and almost ends up destroying the holiday. Santa, Christmas Town’s counterpart to Jack, ends up fixing Christmas and brings Jack some holiday cheer in the form of snow.

The movie ends with Jack happily embracing Halloween once again, but still appreciating the joy and magic of Christmas. Santa is able to share with Jack some things about Christmas that his people can actually understand (the joy of playing in snow), without either of them compromising their whole holidays. Neither tries to be something that they aren’t. Syncretism can work when it creates something new, happens out of necessity, or when it embraces common ground between faiths. Santa’s snow shows us that there can be legitimate common ground between the two towns, and they don’t necessarily need to go full-syncretism in order to appreciate one another. In real life, syncretism is a big part of Vodou’s history because people were forced to convert (or appear to convert) from one religious to another. In the movie, no one is threatening Halloween Town’s people, so there’s no shared need for syncretism. In the 19th track on the movie soundtrack, Santa Claus narrates a bit of an epilogue.

He says:

“But after that night things were never the same. Each holiday knew the other’s name.”

After Jack’s failed attempt to do Christmas himself, both towns come to appreciate their differences and the good things each holiday town has to offer. Jack’s attempts at Christmas were largely directed toward the symbols and visible elements of the holiday, and when he got around to pursuing the real deeper meaning of Christmas, his search was utterly clouded by his own selfishness. Syncretism doesn’t usually work when one person tries to follow multiple faiths simultaneously. In a way, Jack tries to practice Christmas and Halloween at the same time, and in doing so stays true to neither. Jack shows us the dangers of artificially trying to combine cultures and beliefs without fully understanding them both. But Jack learns his lesson. So too can we see this with religion. Sometimes religious syncretism can work well when we can draw parallels to the deeper truths religions share. But when we try to combine religions without taking both of them seriously, we run the risk of losing any authenticity found in either.

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2 thoughts on “Oh, My Pop Culture Religion: The Nightmare Before Religious Syncretism

  1. This is an interesting set of reflections, but also a rather limited understanding of what syncretism is and can be. Syncretism accompanies religion (on institutional, popular, and personal levels) as naturally as paraphrasing accompanies conversations. The only religions that are truly anti-syncretistic are the creedal monotheisms (Christianity and Islam), despite having emerged from syncretistic backgrounds.

    You are entirely right, though, that it can be done poorly and in an ill-informed fashion…usually by people who think they “know better” than the original traditions involved.

  2. Pingback: Throwback Thursdays: Spoopy Halloween Movies to Revisit this Week | Lady Geek Girl and Friends

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