Sunday, January 6, 2013

Nightmare Before Christmas

Tim Burton’s movie entitled “The Nightmare Before Christmas” was released to the public in 1993.  My daughter was three years old. 

I was a fully committed fundamentalist Christian mother at that time.  Determined to pass on my faith to my precious daughter, I filled our home with Christian books, Christian videos, Christian music, and Christian toys.  I took her to Sunday school.  I took her to Mother’s Day Out at our church.  I took her to Vacation Bible School each summer.  Every day in every way, I sought to fill her environment with words of faith and love.

Faith and love were my intention, but faith and law were instead often the result.  So many things seem to be like that in parenting.  We embark on a course of action with every positive intention, and when the course is run, we are stunned to find that we are nowhere near where we intended to end up.  Like the many parents you can see each week at Disney World waiting for the evening parade, the frustration of having all our good intentions stymied can be maddening.  We put all this money, time and effort into trying to create this magical experience of wonder and amazement in our children’s childhood, and then they instead experience something entirely different and not always pleasant.  Who wouldn’t be upset?

Most parents’ initial reaction is anger.  They (we) scold the children for being (fill in the blank) ungrateful or selfish or rude or ugly or call them whiners or sissies or other unpleasant names, when they are experiencing our efforts as a negative instead of the positive we intended.  Good parents catch themselves and stop, apologize, and do a logistics check to look for the cause of distress.  Hungry?  Tired? Sunburned?  Cold? Thirsty?  Sick?  Over-stimulated?  Need to go to the bathroom?  Activity age appropriate?  I liked to think I was a good parent, especially when my daughter was very young.

But then, when my daughter was somewhere around eleven or twelve, things went awry.  I was doing all the right things- Christian devotions, daily prayers, fun activities, church socialization, teaching to her interests and strengths, providing lessons outside the home, exposing her to social groups (Girl Scouts in this case).  Why was my daughter so depressed?  Why was she so “rebellious”?  What was “wrong” with her? 

Looking back now, the signs are everywhere obvious.  She needed me to stop with all the religion and constant moralizing and spiritualizing everything and listen to her. I should have listened to her, and listened without any idea in my head of what the “right” answers were, the “right” feelings were, the “right” thoughts were.  I am sad, truly sad, to say I did not do that.  I was full of Christian culture claptrap, up to my eyebrows, and I knew what were the right answers, the right feelings and the right thoughts for all good Christians.  I was quick to point out to her where she was wrong, why she shouldn’t feel the way she did, and why she should not think the thoughts she was thinking.  I called her thoughts and feelings evil and demonic.

To those of you not up to your eyebrows in Christian culture claptrap, I know that sounds heinous- it is heinous to say that to a child!  But to those of you steeped in Christian culture, it will sound right and good doctrinally.  We are always being tempted by the devil and his demons to think evil thoughts and hold on to evil feelings like fear, resentment and jealousy.  These are not perfectly normal or understandable human emotions and reactions. They are sin.  If a person does not repent of them right away, then they are under the power of the demonic.  That is the spirit at work “in the children of disobedience”.

 Ephesians 2:1 And you hath he quickened, who were dead in trespasses and sins; 2 Wherein in time past ye walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience: 3 Among whom also we all had our conversation in times past in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind; and were by nature the children of wrath, even as others. 
Poor kid.  She was having a hard time figuring out who she was and how she fit into this world, and she was getting no breaks from me.  I thought I was the most loving and supportive Christian parents a child could hope to have, and I was.  I was living the Christian version of the Eagle’s “Life in the Fast Lane”.  I knew all the right people; I took all the right "pills".  I had the scriptural answer to everything. 

But she did not need a Christian parent, she needed a loving parent. She did not need religion to tell her how she should feel and think.  She needed a loving mother to listen to her express how she did feel and think, and without shaming her for having the “wrong” thoughts and feelings.  That she did not get.

She did get tolerance. That was the best I could come up with at the time, but she did not get that tolerance shame-free.  Oh no, there was still plenty of shaming and prodding to do the “right” thing and think the “right” way and feel the “right” things.  Is it any wonder that my daughter’s favorite song to play at the time was “Reflections” from the movie Mulan?

“Look at me
I will never pass for a perfect bride
Or a perfect daughter
Can it be
I'm not meant to play this part?
Now I see
That if I were truly to be myself
I would break my fam'ly's heart.”

So, she quit talking to me.  Most of the time, she just hid in her room.  We didn’t always fight (disagree, clash, hurt each other), but it was still a daily occurrence.  For reasons I now understand, but did not at the time, we just could not connect.  I tried, in my own fashion, every day.  My daughter tried, in her own fashion, probably just as often.  But I was not really trying to understand her.  I was trying to change her.

I wanted to mold her into what the Christian culture said she should be and it was not taking. She appeared to be something else entirely, much to my dismay. While appearances are not always what they seem, she seemed to be (in my estimation at the time) mean, self-centered, uncooperative, pretty much the opposite of the cheerful, obedient, pleasant Christian girl I was expecting.

I was embarrassed by her, because I knew that we would be judged harshly and rejected by our Christian peers.  But I did not forsake her, as I have watched so many other Christian parents do to their children whom they could not control. I give myself some good parent points for that.

The best I could do, the very best at the time, was stand beside her.  I allowed her to express herself in the ways that she chose, though I was not really happy or supportive about it.  I tolerated it.  Not a best case scenario by far, but really the best I could come up with at the time.  I was willing to bear the shame of being her mom, even though I did not understand her and was incapable of trying, because I knew that God loved and accepted me as I was, without condition. I would love my daughter the same way.

The day came when my daughter became fascinated with Goth culture.  She was already depressed, I reasoned.  No wonder she would fall into a depressing and dark subculture.  I didn’t want a war over everything, so I picked and chose what I could tolerate and what was just too far over the line for even me.  So, when she asked to watch Tim Burton’s “The Nightmare Before Christmas” I stuck my nose in the air and agreed to tolerate it.  *I* would never watch such garbage.  I am quite sure I made some comments about not understanding what she saw in such dark entertainment, but I allowed it. 

I thought that was the farthest stretched out limit to the love of God any reasonable Christian parent could reach- to allow her to watch it.  I would not sully my own happy Christian bubble by watching it with her.  I was too pure for that.

Fast forward to this year.  My daughter is now a grown adult. She was home for the holidays, and I asked her and her brother if they wanted to watch a Christmas movie.  “Yes!” came the happy answer.  “Let’s watch ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’!”  Her father and I, being less religious than we were ten years ago, agreed.  Ironically, we are still both infected by Christian culture enough to only agree reluctantly. J

Oh, my dear Lord, why did I not watch this movie earlier? 

This movie is a beautiful fictionalization of my daughter’s experience of life. Like Jack Skellyton, she wanted to belong to the magical world of Christendom (Christmastown).  She was enamored by it, and tried her very hardest to make it work.  But like Jack, she was doomed to be forever on the outside of that to which she so wanted to belong.  Ten years ago, when she asked me to watch this movie, she was trying to get me to understand her heart.  What a religious fool I was to turn my nose up at the opportunity.

There’s a scene in the movie, where Jack is pretending to be Santa Clause and failing miserably. The townspeople are employing anti-aircraft guns to shoot down the imposter.  They don’t understand that Jack has a good and loving heart and wants to be a part of the gift-giving love-fest that is Christmas.    All they know is that his gifts don’t look right, and he doesn’t look right, and when he tries to “ho ho ho” it sounds like the frightening cackle of a Halloween ghoul.  So they take aim and shoot him down.

Jack falls out of his downed aircraft and lands, appropriately, in a cemetery.  Even more poignant, he comes to rest on the outstretched arms of an angelic statuary.  I am tearing up at this point, and I look at my daughter.  Tears stream down her cheeks, and yet she is smiling.  “Yes,” she assents out loud, “because God loves us, too, even the ones who can’t ever fit in.”

My heart broke in that moment and it still hasn’t fully recovered.  I hope it never does.


  1. I second the wow here... Wow!

    If my parents ever did something right when it comes to parenting it is that they did not try to impose their wishes on us when it comes to our life. Sure they taught us values and told us openly and frankly what they thought about our plans in life but they did not try to make us into what they wanted us to be. Some would say that this was an unsuccessful strategy with only one going to college (me) and she became a mere teacher and not a lawyer or doctor or something like that. However, my parents understood that the only person who needs to be happy about your life is yourself and that I can say we all of us siblings are. We were free to choose and we made our choices with an open mind and an open heart and in that respect we are all extremely successful.

  2. Kudos to you parents, Elin! The world needs more people like them in it. =) Thank you for sharing your positive experience of life. <3

    And L., love you friend. :-)

  3. Headless Unicorn GuyApril 19, 2013 at 3:22 PM

    Something additional about Nightmare Before Xmas:

    Jack and all the denizens of Halloween Town are Scary. Not Evil, it's just their nature to be Spooky and Scary.

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  5. Our family watched this just last week. Together. I never saw it when I was young, but have tended to enjoy the macabre. Truly a delightful movie! And, bonus points for the creative use of the Dies Irae chant in the soundtrack. (Insider musician joke...)