Jack: What Christmas card did we end up sending out?I love Community. Who doesn't love Community? People who haven't watched it yet, that's who. I love it because it manages to be funny and zany and clever and soulful, and manages to cram all those feelings into 22 perfectly-formed minutes almost every week. "Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas," this year's Community Christmas episode, is no exception. What you may have heard about it, even if you don't watch the show, is that it's a stop-motion animated, musical episode of what is usually a more-or-less realistic show set in a community college and among a cobbled-together family of students who attend it. What you probably will not have heard is how the show handles this shift in medium. For most series, a musical or animated episode hangs on either a thin hook (in Scrubs, a patient suffers from an illness that causes her to hear singing instead of speech) or the characters' sudden and entirely temporary inability to notice that the rules of their story have changed. In other cases, such as Buffy's musical episode or Angel's puppet episode, the characters will notice that something is off, but the shows' universe allows for magic that can cause such strange events as characters bursting into song, or a man turning into a felt puppet. "Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas" doesn't take either of those approaches, and makes no bones of the fact that we are watching its title character, the group's resident weirdo, undergo some sort of psychotic break. When Abed informs his friends that they are all stop-motion animated, they react with either bemusement or concern, both of which signal to the audience that suspension of disbelief is not what's called for here.
Avery: [reads from card] Happy Holidays [turns page] is what terrorists say. Merry Christmas, Avery and Jack.
30 Rock, "Christmas Attack Zone"
So on top of being funny and well-done, "Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas" is a clever episode, because it has to pull the double-duty of showing us the events of the episode through Abed's fantasy, which involves a journey through a winter wonderland to find the meaning of Christmas, while also making it clear that what's actually happening is that the characters are gathered together in a library study room, either enthusiastically joining in Abed's play, half-heartedly going along with it, or desperately trying to bring him back to reality. And it's a disturbing episode, because even though Abed, by his own admission, has one foot out of reality in the best of times, and even though the episode reveals that his latest escapade is driven by serious trauma--a letter from his absentee mother informing him that she's choosing to spend Christmas with her new family--it's not a good sign that his response to this blow is to sink into such a detailed and stubborn fantasy. It is therefore a bit of a disappointment, but also a profound relief, when Abed is saved by his friends' choice to join in his delusion. Christmas, they declare, is after all a shared delusion, one of togetherness and family triumphing over pain and disappointment, and if Abed needs to spend his Christmas being stop-motion animated, they're willing to go there with him, and even sing a song to that effect. As Abed puts it: "the meaning of Christmas is the idea that Christmas has meaning, and it can mean whatever we want. For me it used to mean being with my Mom. Now it means being with you guys." The episode ends with the group, now in stop-motion by choice, watching Christmas cartoons together, taking over Abed and his mother's Christmas ritual.
Which is a lovely sentiment, of course, and a true one, as far as such things go. But if you're watching it in a country that isn't dominated by Christian culture, it also rings very false. To me, that falseness is brought home by details like Annie, who is Jewish, singing that "Christmas can also be a Hanukkah thing," or the presence of a menorah alongside a Christmas tree in the college's "designated holiday zones," the only place where students are allowed to acknowledge that the month of December has any cultural significance (one of the uncomfortable undertones of "Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas" is the fact that, in its rush to reconfigure Christmas as a universal holiday of family and friendship, which no one in their right mind could possibly object to, it ends up utilizing a lot of the rhetoric of the "Christmas is under attack!" crowd). Both of which would seem to suggest that Annie and Jews like her also celebrate Christmas, but just happen to call it Hanukkah. Others have said this before me, and others will say it after me, probably to no effect, but let's give it another shot: Hanukkah is not the Jewish Christmas. Again: Hanukkah is not the Jewish Christmas. Once more, with feeling: HANUKKAH IS NOT THE JEWISH CHRISTMAS.
You think that did any good? Me neither.
That Hanukkah is not the Jewish Christmas should be pretty easy to spot in 2010, a year in which the vagaries of the Jewish calendar have plopped the holiday so early that it had in fact ended several hours before "Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas" aired. By the time December 25th rolls around, we Jews will have already forgotten about Hanukkah and started planning for the next holiday, Tu B'shvat. But even in years in which the two holidays coincide, it should be pretty easy, for anyone who knows anything about them, to see that they have nothing in common. They may both spring from the winter solstice, but the meanings that have become attached to them in the intervening millennia are very different. Hanukkah is a very minor holiday, one of several "they tried to kill us; we survived; let's eat" celebrations. In Israel in particular, its associations are less with family and gift-giving than with courage and triumph over an oppressor, which is why the official ceremonies that mark Israel's independence every spring borrow Hanukkah imagery quite heavily, explicitly comparing the independence fighters with the Maccabees, and culminating with the lighting of beacons set to a traditional Hanukkah song. What's more, in a desert or near-desert region, the winter solstice doesn't mean what it does further to the North. Winter isn't a cold, dead period during which one desperately hopes for the return of the life-giving sun, and tries to replace its warmth with the warmth of friends and family. It's a period of birth and renewal, whose rains guarantee survival during the hot, dry months of summer. Last week's Carmel forest fire, which raged for five days and claimed the lives of more than 40 people, is an example of what happens when winter fails to come--at the tail end of one of the hottest years on record, and following a rainless October and November, there was so much dry underbrush that a single neglected blaze was enough to set an entire region on fire.
I'm focusing on the Jewish aspect because that's what I know, and because Hanukkah is the Christmas-alternative that "Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas" references explicitly, but I'm sure that there are viewers of other faiths who would say that, as positive a message as spending time with your loved ones is, it doesn't reflect the meaning of their solstice-adjacent holiday either (in particular I'd be interested to know how Muslim viewers took the episode, given that Abed is Muslim and had previously been portrayed as relatively entrenched in that faith). To say that Christmas is a universal holiday, and that we can choose to give it a meaning--the importance of family and friendship--that appeals to people of any faith or none is, however generous and well-intentioned a sentiment, also an expression of Christianity's dominance over American culture. Hanukka became reconfigured as the Jewish Christmas as a defense mechanism, a way for Jews assaulted from all corners by one of the most important holidays in the Christian calender (and by the marketing extravaganza that has transformed it into a six-week event) to assert that they too were doing something meaningful around the end of the year. The only reason you'd need to come up with a universal, secularized, entirely inoffensive version of Christmas that is really about telling the people you love that you love them is that the actual, Christian version of Christmas is so firmly entrenched in your culture that it can never be removed, and the only way to accommodate the people in your society who don't celebrate it is to turn it into something it isn't--which is just as unfair to the people who celebrate it as marking the birth of Christ (for example Shirley, a devout Christian who is expelled from Abed's fantasy for believing that she owns the holiday) as it is to the people who don't. What "Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas," with its entirely kind-hearted conclusion that even people who don't celebrate Christmas, or any holiday, can be included in it, fails to take into account is that there are people all over the world for whom Christmas means absolutely nothing. Who, because they haven't grown up in a society that fetishizes that date, and haven't had to make their peace with it, view December 25th as just another day on the calendar.
Community is an American show, featuring American characters, and aimed at an American audience, so it makes sense that when it discusses Christmas, it should do so in a way that reflects American experience--for example, in this episode we learn that Jewish Annie and Muslim Abed both come from mixed backgrounds, and each have a Christian parent whose religious influence was less dominant in their lives, but who has nevertheless left them with personal associations with Christmas. What "Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas" means when it says that Christmas is universal is that it's universal in the US, which is probably still not true but less objectionable. It's not the show's fault that a viewer in Israel feels so left out of what it clearly intends to be an inclusive and inviting story. But I can't help but think back to last year's Christmas episode, "Comparative Religion." In that story, Shirley is nonplussed to find herself, for probably the first time in her life, with close friends who don't share her Christian beliefs and her associations with Christmas. She tries to impose those beliefs on them, and ends up gently but firmly rebuffed, as the other members of the group make it clear that while they're happy to celebrate their togetherness, and to set aside a time for that celebration that just happens to coincide with a major Christian holiday, what they're celebrating is not Christmas. That may seem like the same lesson learned in "Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas," but there's a subtle yet crucial difference. "Comparative Religion" allows every character their own holiday celebration--or, in the case of the militantly atheist Britta and just plain cynical Jeff, its absence--and separates that holiday from their family celebration. "Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas" folds that celebration into Christmas. I prefer the former lesson. It's true that you can take Christmas and make it mean whatever you want it to mean, but I'd like a story like "Comparative Religion," which even within the confines of Christian-dominated American culture, allows you to take Christmas, but also to leave it.