Once upon a time, in what now feels like someone else’s life, I was invited to teach a course on spiritual journaling to kids in fourth grade through eighth grade. As something of an ice-breaker, I asked them to write about the movie character they most identified with and then explain why. What was it about that character that so captivated them?
Every year as Halloween comes and goes and Christmas is looming, my own beloved movie character comes to the fore in my mind: Jack Skellington, The Pumpkin King, ruler of Halloween Town and the protagonist of Tim Burton’s stop-motion masterpiece The Nightmare Before Christmas. I pull my favorite denim jacket out of the closet, the one with Jack painted on the back with line sketches surrounding him. It’s been blessed a few times (I’ve worn it on retreats) and I’ve been known to refer to it as my ‘holy jacket’.
And every year, that same question comes up: What is it about this lanky skeleton that so captivates me?
I could watch this movie a thousand times and still get teary over Jack Skellington’s first encounter with Christmas Town. He’s the Pumpkin King and the whole of Halloween Town is counting on his talent for providing a good scare. Every year is supposed to be darker and scarier, bigger and badder than the year before but for Jack, it’s starting to feel empty. That nagging ‘been there, done that’ feeling. When he accidentally stumbles into Christmas Town, he’s fascinated by everything he sees from the Christmas lights to the presents and right down to the snowflakes themselves. He’s wide-eyed and excited. He’s suddenly come alive. But it’s what follows that really hits home for me.
He tries to capture it, take over and recreate it. He returns to Halloween Town and tries to change his whole world to match up with what he saw in Christmas Town. No one in Halloween Town understands what has gotten into Jack. He runs experiments and lays out elaborate plans and even kidnaps Santa Claus to try to understand Christmas better. He has an experience of something so beautiful and so completely beyond himself and in trying to capture it, preserve and recreate it, he royally, utterly and completely screws it up. He quite literally ends up blown out of the sky. But he dusts himself off and after rescuing Santa from the Boogieman, he admits his complete failure and lets Santa make everything right again. Jack returns to Halloween Town, still the Pumpkin King, but as a changed man.
I love Jack for his misunderstood, misguided sense of wonder, his passion and his enthusiasm. I get it. I really get it. I can’t even begin to tell you how many times I’ve tried to hold on to moments of grace and yet the tighter my grip, the faster it runs through my fingers. I wonder sometimes: How many times do I need to be shot out of the sky, crash and burn before I’ll learn to just let those moments unfold as they are meant to, with no need of my misguided help?