We are approaching the 21st anniversary of one of the most disruptive holiday attacks in our history — the incident the media has dubbed “The Nightmare Before Christmas”. While many see it as the opening salvo in the War on Christmas (some even calling it a Christmas Pearl Harbor), it is important to understand the full context from which it emerged. Re-analysis of primary sources from before the attack show that the Nightmare Before Christmas (NBC) was driven as much by the domestic political and economic conditions of Halloween Town as anything else. With unprecedented threat of a “rebooted” attack, it’s important to look back and understand how the previous one came about.
Halloween Town was not a constitutional monarchy in the European mode. While it did have an elected mayor, the king, Jack Skellington, retained an immense degree of direct authority. The mayor was involved in civic planning but endowed with very little power, and was largely responsible for coordinating the citizens for town meetings and other events. He was in a precarious position, elected by the people but utterly subordinate to the king. In fact, our primary sources indicate that at one point he was heard to exclaim: “I’m only an elected official here! I can’t make decisions by myself!”
King Jack’s town meeting has also led to misconceptions about the Halloween Town regime. A leader assembling his citizens to harangue them about social reform certainly bears the hallmarks of totalitarian regimes in the model of Fidel Castro’s Cuba, or the Stalin-era Soviet Union. However, these governments were also highly bureaucratic, in a way that Halloween Town’s was not. The king exercises his authority over the citizens directly, giving them orders one at a time. Thus, Halloween Town must be understood to have operated as a feudal state or even a pre-state chiefdom, albeit with some contemporary trappings.
Nor was the king wholly unopposed. There can be no doubt that the majority of Halloween Town citizens took part in preparations for the NBC attack. However, Sally, in King Jack’s inner circle, expressed open dissent. While she was sidelined and her advice ignored, she suffered no other repercussions. More significant was Oogie Boogie Man, the king’s main domestic rival. Jack was clearly aware of the threat posed by Oogie Boogie, as he specifically attempted to keep him away from the Christmas preparations. Nevertheless, he was not known to have made any other moves to suppress Oogie Boogie or remove him as a threat.
Oogie Boogie, in fact, already had his own power base in Halloween Town: the three covert operatives Lock, Shock and Barrel (LSB). Initially, they too were excluded from Christmas preparations, before Jack asked them for help. Their mission, which Jack classified top secret, was to kidnap and hold “Mr. Sandy Claws”. Since Jack was fully aware of their association with Oogie Boogie, we must conclude that there was nobody else in Halloween Town with the requisite “craft, cunning, mischief” to conduct the operation. Like many leaders, King Jack was both wary of and dependent on his secret service.
Examining the LSB also helped clarify how King Jack maintained power. While most of the citizens at least appeared loyal and happy to serve, LSB declared that if they kill ‘Sandy Claws’ instead of taking him alive, they “may lose some pieces / And then Jack will beat [them] black and green”. Not surprisingly, Jack’s power relied at least in part on the threat of force.
Which finally brings us to the key question: what was the motivation for Jack Skellington and his Halloween Town’s unprecedented attempt to disrupt Christmas? Contrary to claims at the time, it was clearly not motivated by a hatred of Christmas or of those who celebrate it. Instead, consider that Jack starts to plan the Christmas operation soon after returning from a fact-finding trip abroad to Christmas Town. Unlike Halloween Town, Christmas Town had high-quality housing, a healthy populace, and a regimented political-industrial system generating wealth for the paramount leader and the population at large. Jack’s goal was not to disrupt Christmas out in the world, nor take over Christmas Town — instead, the NBC incident was a side effect of Jack’s attempt to reform Halloween Town itself to resemble Christmas Town. Like many leaders of developing countries before him, King Jack tries to force-march his population from a low-skill economy based on scaring to the organized, wealthier industrial economy he observed in Christmas Town — with ultimately tragic consequences.
There are operational lessons that can be learned from the NBC incident as well. Certainly, there were warning signs. Halloween Town’s unprecedented industrial espionage against Christmas Town was one. More significantly, before kidnapping Santa Claus, the Halloween Town LBS mistakenly kidnapped the Easter Bunny before quietly releasing him. If those dots had been connected properly at the time, the entire incident could have been prevented. While during the incident itself there was admirable inter-agency cooperation between the police and the air defense forces, there was no adequate counterattack, and Santa Claus only escaped due to infighting in Halloween Town itself.
However, as our occupation finally comes to an end and the last combat troops withdraw from Halloween Town, we cannot only prevent future attacks via counterterrorism tactics alone. We must be proactive in helping economies like Halloween Town’s develop and grow peacefully and in a controlled way, without dangerous attempts to force instant and destabilizing changes.