Subversive Season’s Greetings:

Tim Burton’s Christmas Trilogy

One of my favorite Christmas songs is the opening track on Elvis Presley’s first holiday album.  The album itself was a largely traditional collection of songs—“O Little Town of Bethlehem” and such—but Elvis insisted that the opening track be an original number written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, the legendary duo who wrote many of his most raucous hits.  The song, “Santa Claus is Back in Town” begins slowly, with the Jordanaires harmonizing on the word “Christmas” three times.  It’s soft and dreamlike, so much so you can almost hear Andy Williams, Johnny Mathis, or maybe even Bing Crosby himself clearing his throat and stepping up to the microphone.

But that’s when everything changes.  With no warning, D.J. Fontana suddenly starts pounding on the drums like somebody trying to beat his way out of a coffin after being buried alive.  And in essence, that’s what the whole band was doing, with Elvis’s voice coming in after all that ferocious drumming with a blues wail that sounds more like a drunken sailor swaggering into a brothel than a sweater-clad crooner chomping on chestnuts by an open fire:  “Weeeeeeell…it’s Christmas tiiiiiiime pretty baby, and the snow is falling on the ground.”

To paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of Elvis and the band selling out had been greatly exaggerated.

I mention this because the song, like most great Christmas art, is forged in conflict.  In this case, the conflict is square versus hip, pop versus rock, age versus youth, and (despite the fact that Elvis was white) white versus black.  It’s not far removed from the class conflict that drives Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, and Rankin and Bass’s Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer—not to mention that other Christmas story about the poor people with the out-of-wedlock baby who get turned away from the local hotel and have to sleep in the barn.

Class and cultural conflict is at the heart of almost every lasting piece of Christmas art, and it certainly underscores Tim Burton’s Christmas trilogy—Edward Scissorhands, Batman Returns, and The Nightmare Before Christmas.  Each of those films, either directly or indirectly, focuses on Christmas, and each of them features significant cultural conflicts related to the holiday.  You may not think of Burton in the same way that people think about Charles Dickens or Bing Crosby, but few people have devoted as much time to creating Christmas-themed art.

In European tradition, the Christmas holidays were a topsy-turvy time of social inversion, where the lower classes were temporarily allowed to reign supreme, much like the carnival in The Hunchback of Notre Dame where Quasimodo is crowned King of Fools.  The idea was actually to “contain” the discontent of the lower classes by allowing them a week or so of special privileges, after which the upper classes would reassert their position and things would return to the status quo, thoughts of revolution … purged for another year.

However, as Stephen Nissenbaum recounts in his book, The Battle for Christmas, all the rowdy hijinks and social chaos didn’t play well in the more Puritanical United States.[1] As a result, traditional Christmas celebrations were banned in many American communities.  Then in the early 19th Century, a number of wealthy New Englanders (including Clement C. Moore) began a newer, Americanized version of Christmas that was safe, quiet, child-centered, and very materialistic.  It was an “invented tradition,” designed by and for the comfortable.

Since that time, Christmas celebrations have often been defined by the continued efforts of the privileged class to preserve this new tradition—a tradition that effectively marginalizes many of the people who don’t fit neatly into its models.  Consequently, whenever you study Christmas-themed art, it’s not hard to find the ongoing class struggle boiling beneath the icy surface.  Generally, those forces representing the establishment promote a safe, quiet, white bread holiday celebration filled with all the spontaneity of a Currier & Ives print and all the rawness of a Perry Como record.  At the same time, the raucous spirit of those older traditions subversively sneaks its way into the party and turns everything upside down.[2] That’s essentially what’s happening the moment D.J. Fontana starts banging those drums in “Santa Claus is Back in Town.”

And that power struggle also colors each of the films in Tim Burton’s Christmas trilogy.  He structures Edward Scissorhands like a demented fairy tale, beginning and ending in the distant future with an aged Winona Ryder telling a bedtime story about the origins of snow.  Her story begins with Peg, a frustrated Avon seller played by Diane Wiest, who strays from the safe confines of her neighborhood and discovers Edward (Johnny Depp), an artificial intelligence created and then orphaned by an inventor played by Vincent Price.  Feeling like she can help him, Wiest takes Edward back to her cookie-cutter neighborhood, which, in many ways, is far more frightening than any abandoned Vincent Price mansion.  Peg’s neighborhood is a nightmare ripped from the backlot of The Donna Reed Show, a treeless suburb of pre-fab houses and identical cars.  If it weren’t for the references to VCRs and the presence of a high-tech alarm system in one family’s house, you would think the story was set in the ‘50s of myth—the romanticized “Someplace that’s Green” that Audrey sings about in Little Shop of Horrors.

Edward, as the Frankenstein-inspired outsider, is the primary threat to all of this social conformity, but while Peg may have intended to change Edward, he ends up changing all of them, using his cutting skills to create unique topiaries in their otherwise plastic-looking lawns, and treating all the women to avant-garde hairstyles.  He pushes everyone out of his or her comfort zone until some of them start to push back.  Predictably, when the neighborhood finally snaps and many of the suburban “villagers” violently drive Edward from their midst, it’s Christmastime.  But even though the forces of conformity win, Burton leaves his audience with the image of Edward carving an ice sculpture, spewing out flecks of ice like some arctic volcano.  As the movie ends, Ryder finishes the bedtime story by insisting that it was the first time it ever snowed.  Clearly, anyone looking for the true spirit of Christmas would need to leave the materialistic suburbs and check out the Goth kid in the dilapidated Vincent Price mansion.

Surprisingly, Burton’s next film, Batman Returns, focuses even more on Christmas, even though that’s not what it’s remembered for.  It begins with snow falling on the Warner Brothers logo, and in the opening, largely silent sequence, we watch as an aristocratic couple, the Cobblepots, are mortified to discover that their newborn baby is hideously deformed.  Faced with an offspring that cannot fit into their manicured world, the couple decides, on Christmas no less, to toss their newborn baby into the Gotham sewer.  Thirty-three years later, this underworld monstrosity we recognize as the Penguin leads the Circus Gang, symbolic descendants of those social inverting carnival-goers of European tradition, and his story reminds us of the social inequalities in Gotham as well as the corruption of establishment forces like the industrialist, Max Schreck.

In a parallel story, Burton tracks the fall and rise of Schreck’s assistant, Selina Kyle, whose primary job seems to be serving coffee and keeping her mouth shut.  Almost everything about Selina’s scenes are designed to emphasize the problems of gender inequality, culminating, after her transformation into a liberated Catwoman, with the line, “I am Catwoman; hear me roar.”

While the Penguin is far less sympathetic than Catwoman, both villains represent a threat to the controlled social order of Gotham, and both wind up sparring with Schreck, who begins the movie by officiating at the city’s tree-lighting ceremony and is even declared by the current mayor to be “Gotham’s Santa.”

For much of the film, Michael Keaton’s Batman remains on the sidelines, wrestling with his own ambivalence, particularly where Catwoman is concerned.  In the end, while riding in the back of his limo on Christmas, Bruce Wayne sees what he thinks might be Catwoman in an alley.  He gets out to investigate, but as he stands in the snow, all he finds is a stray cat.  Slipping back into the car and pensively staring out the window, he seems distracted when Alfred wishes him a “Merry Christmas.”  In response, Keaton—with his best line reading from either Batman film—ruefully responds, “Merry Christmas, Alfred.  Good will toward men … and women.”  As with Edward Scissorhands, social order is restored, but the sense of loss, coupled with Bruce’s restlessness and melancholy, suggest that things are far from merry this Christmas.

The third film in the trilogy, the stop-motion animated film, The Nightmare Before Christmas, was not directed by Burton, but he wrote the story and produced the film, so it features many of the same Christmas themes.  The story presents a holiday-based mythology where each celebration is managed by its own special community—until Jack Skellington, the Pumpkin King in charge of Halloween, stumbles upon Christmas and decides he wants to experience something more joyous than trick or treats.  Thus, he arranges to kidnap Santa Claus and tries to run Christmas himself.  However, his bumbling and tone-deaf efforts are met with horror and ultimately, as in Edward Scissorhands and Batman Returns, violence.  The narrative seems to argue in favor of the forces of order—sending a message that everyone should stay in his or her place and be happy about it—but the aesthetics of the movie suggest otherwise.

Most of the fun clearly comes from the inappropriate tone of Skellington’s efforts to deliver Christmas.  Unlike the seemingly conservative message of the plot, the visceral experience of watching the movie connects its viewers with the plight of Skellington and his fellow usurpers.  They maintain our dramatic sympathy while challenging the conservative, controlled approach to Christmas, and we become the revelers, thrilling to the social inversion of the Skellington-run holiday.

In this sense, all three of Burton’s films present a similar idea—Christmas becomes the symbolic battlefield between social order and subversion, and in each case, even though social order wins, Burton aligns our sympathies with the forces of subversion.

All of which is to say, there’s nothing wrong with adding a little Gothic subversion to your holiday season.  You might even say … it’s traditional.

[1] Nissenbaum, Stephen.  The Battle for Christmas.  New York:  Vintage, 1997. Print.

[2] I once wrote a much longer analysis of the counter-cultural spirit driving some of the most popular animated Christmas television specials.  Carpenter, Greg.  “Have Yourself a Counter-Culture X-mas:  Red-nosed Misfits, Elvin Outlaws, and Bearded Marxists.”  PopMatters 23 Dec. 2010. Web.

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Greg Carpenter is a writer, teacher, and recovering coffee addict. He is the author of The British Invasion: Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and the Invention of the Modern Comic Book Writer. In addition to producing a weekly column for Sequart for almost two years, he has also written for and PopMatters. He has published essays on a variety of writers and artists including Moore, Gaiman, Morrison, Jerry Robinson, August Wilson, and Tennessee Williams, and he has taught a wide variety of classes, including Comics, Shakespeare, Modern American Literature, and Screenwriting/Playwriting. He currently teaches at a university in Nashville.

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Also by Greg Carpenter:

The British Invasion: Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and the Invention of the Modern Comic Book Writer


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