Organizing Lessons from The Nightmare Before Christmas

Feeling nostalgic, I recently re-watched The Nightmare Before Christmas, and was struck by how well it captured the pitfalls of earnest but destructive cultural appropriation and parachute organizing efforts that make no attempt to understand local culture or needs. It is a particularly interesting when compared to the standard white/outside savior narrative usually seen in popular TV and movies. For those familiar with popular US Christmas traditions, this would be a fun way to illustrate these ideas. Alert! This article contains spoilers for this silly 20 year old children’s movie!

Our allegory goes like this: Jack is bored with his own cultural traditions (a Halloween based society) so he visits the exotic Christmas based society. After a day there without speaking to anyone, he now considers himself an expert on the culture and traditions, and decides it would be fun to not only recreate Christmas but to “make it better.” However, because he doesn’t respect the knowledge/work of the other culture, this well-meaning effort ends in disaster. Sound familiar?

The silliness of examples like these can open us up to seeing these truths from outside of our own narrow experience, perhaps making us slightly more willing to see harsh big picture realities.

For example, in the following clip, Jack gets some broad sweeps of the culture right, but the town hall can’t help but see the Christmas culture through their own cultural lens, (for example at 2:18 explaining Santa Claus as “Sandy Claws” a terrifying giant red lobster man is close but so wrong); even though the group is sort of technically correct, the Christmas they describe is a grotesque (albeit charming) mockery of the real thing.  A more serious version of this lost in translation cultural theft and distortion might be the ways that indigenous culture is stolen, twisted and distorted into sporting mascots and chants.

This example is useful to me, because of how well-meaning and excited and yet TOTALLY DESTRUCTIVE the Halloween community efforts are.  Jack is a likable character, he is smart and hard-working (and a great singer!), yet all his decisions are destructive because he doesn’t respect and account for local community wisdom and work. His efforts to “help” were rooted in, and eventually undone by, ethnocentrism, selfishness, arrogance and ego. People can be very resistant to see these patterns revealed in their own work, is is awfully humbling to realize you are making an ass of yourself when you thought you were being awesome (speaking from personal experience) – especially when millions of dollars and thousands of people-hours have already been dropped into a dead-end solution that isn’t rooted in community reality or knowledge.

His Halloween community appropriates Christmas culture without understanding it or consulting with the Christmas community, with disastrous results. Here are some lessons you could pull away from this film.

1. Respect local work: Jack tries to “help” Santa by giving him a vacation on Christmas Eve – but what he does instead is jump in at the last minute to take advantage of a year of build-up work, show-boating and stealing all the glory for himself, without consulting with the local community to make sure his ideas of what the project looks like will be successful.

It took me a long time to realize how deeply problematic the “We’re here to save you, just sit back and relax” attitude is. I was raised to be helpful and in a church that really built up volunteer work – anything you could offer was AWESOME and that made you awesome! But in my experience, the work outsiders are generally stepping up to do is the glory work – like showing up the day of a big action or meeting with funders – that leave the outsider with all of the power, excitement and access to resources. Outsiders often ignore the slow-building unglorious work that is needed to make sure the exciting flashy day of fun and volunteering is actually strategic and power building for the community. 

2. Make a mockery of a culture you are trying to honor/emulate: Again, I think it’s helpful to point out that even though you might not think of yourself as mean-spirited or a bad person, you can be incredibly destructive and disrespectful.  Some interesting thoughts on the difference between cultural exchange and cultural appropriation are here.  I especially think this happens with folk arts and dancing, which are complicated and hard to learn, but easy to mock and imitate for cheap humor.

3. Respect Local Knowledge: When you are not from a place, the choices deemed strategic by that community may seem like nonsense to you. The Halloween community thought they were improving Christmas by making it spookier and scarier, because they were not able to see Christmas from the local Christmas perspective.  Can you think of examples when groups have tried to fix problems that don’t exist, or focused on the wrong problem, or ignored the root of a serious problem, because organizations refused to see or try to understand the wisdom of the local culture?

Communities facing environmental justice disasters don’t have pollution because they don’t know better, or because they are not as smart as you. There is likely a rich and powerful tradition of resistance to exploitation as well as a well-organized and powerful system of oppression in place that you aren’t aware of.  This may seem obvious, but it must not be, because it is a very common underlying, if sometimes subtle, unconscious or not fully articulated, opinion of many outside activists.

4. Not Talk to the People Most Affected: Seems simple, but talking to people, or more importantly, listening to people, would have solved most of the problems in this film. And in most films. While ignoring basic communication is an important aspect of  many fun movie plots, it is just not useful at all in organizing.

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