Sunday, December 12, 2010

Bah, Humbug: On Community's Christmas Episode

Jack: What Christmas card did we end up sending out?
Avery: [reads from card] Happy Holidays [turns page] is what terrorists say.  Merry Christmas, Avery and Jack.

30 Rock, "Christmas Attack Zone"
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.

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.


Michael C. Rush said...

I dispute "militant" as an accurate description of Britta's atheism. Open, overt, unapologetic, certainly, but not militant.

Anonymous said...

I totally agree with this. Not that stop-motion spoofing isn't awesome, but I so preferred last year's message of "everyone else does things differently AND THAT'S OKAY." I suspect Dan Harmon and co. couldn't resist the claymation, but retconning Annie and Abed into "oh, I'm half Christian" and then making everyone celebrate Christmas whether they normally do or not? Annoying.

Anonymous said...

I love Community. It's a little bullet of happiness to my heart every week. But it's dumb. Not in the jokes it makes or in the story structures it builds but substantively. Over the last few weeks, the show has assented to:

the group inventing a thieving ghost to prevent its members from fostering a general distrust of each other.

one character bypassing another character's concern over the head-on collision the competitive aspects of her identity are fostering by pointing out she's really good at being competitive

that the meaning of a thing can be whatever as long as that meaning isn't impolitic enough to destabilise the group

I really do love the program but I think it'll be a long time before the show starts to question, say, why the gang's Christmas-centred cohesion takes place in the shadow of them being violent towards others or whether 'mutually agreed delusion' is the thing as 'the truth' in its consequences.


Anonymous said...

All defensive theists think that unabashed, unapologetic atheists are "militant." In fact, some of them think that all atheists who don't grovel before believers are "militant."

Anonymous said...

An interesting post that started as commentary on Community and evolved into a lecture on Hanukkah and Christmas. Of course, I'm not sure that your criticism of the TV show for including Hanukhah alongside Christmas is really appropriate. Christians in America did not foster the association, American Jews did. I think that you're irritation is better placed on the rabbis who pushed Hanakkah as a rival to Christmas rather than the show's writers. They created the association, not American Christians and I'm not sure you can blame the Community writers for including and association that is now so well ingrained in American culture.

As for Christmas being universal, the holiday itself might not be celebrated universal, but the themes behind it certainly are. The holiday has been becoming less religious and more secular since the 19th century. Christians in America are trying to resist the trend, but its continuing regardless. Atheists and nonreligious people (myself included) often celebrate the holiday and the christian element is now often relegated to a minor role, in favor of celebrations of family, goodwill, and generosity, all universal emotions. Community's Christmas episode viewed Christmas as a celebration of community, as did last year's Christmas episode. Most Americans see Christmas as a holiday whose large, non-religious aspects can be celebrated by a wide variety of non-christians and not as a chance to make everyone conform to their religion.

Anonymous said...

Me again. My above post wasn't to insist that everyone SHOULD celebrate Christmas because it has non-religious aspects, but to point out that, unlike other religious holidays, it does have a significant non-religious aspects that could be, and are, celebrated by non-Christians, making the holiday more inclusive than it would otherwise be, at least in America and secular Europe.

Abigail Nussbaum said...


I might have said "aggressive" or "obnoxious" instead of "militant," but I certainly don't see Britta's proselytizing of her atheism as any less annoying than Shirley's harping on the subject of her Christianity.


I actually ended up rewatching "Comparative Religion" last night, and it's pretty clear that neither Annie nor Abed have any of the associations with Christmas that they're revealed to have in "Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas" - it is, as you say, a retcon rather than a new discovery about the characters, and an annoying one.


I have noticed that the more recent episodes of Community have tended to focus more on the group as a whole, and its members' willingness to contort their habits and opinions in order to accommodate it, whereas earlier episodes showed them as separate individuals. It does seem unlikely - though not impossible, because though I agree that Community is more often clever than smart, I wouldn't go as far as to call it dumb - that the show will ever seriously question how healthy that transition is. I wouldn't necessarily want it to, though. As I say in this post, I don't think the message that a group can designate its own meaning for a holiday is a negative one, just not as positive as the pluralistic message of last year's Christmas episode. I do appreciate the fact that Community is about, well, community, and even "Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas" hasn't soured me on that theme yet.


I assume, from the similarity of styles and rapid succession, that the last three comments are all yours. In the future, may I suggest that you lead with your more substantive points and only then segue to the ones that are snide and dismissive? Doing it the other way around makes you look like a troll not worth engaging with.

Anonymous said...

(I'm a new anon.)

I actually ended up rewatching "Comparative Religion" last night, and it's pretty clear that neither Annie nor Abed have any of the associations with Christmas that they're revealed to have in "Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas" - it is, as you say, a retcon rather than a new discovery about the characters, and an annoying one.

I don't see that this is necessarily true as to either of them. We knew Abed's mother was Polish early on, and also that he identifies as Muslim. That's hardly contradictory with what he said in this episode which is: (a) religiously he is Muslim, and (b) his Polish mother celebrated Christmas secularly with him in some form on Dec. 9 every year.

Meanwhile, we didn't know Annie's dad was Episcopalian, but she said in this episode that she never liked his Christmas celebrations and that this was the "nicest Christmas she had had." So it's not really as if she would have jumped in with her own Christmas traditions in Comparative Religions because even on the info in this episode, she doesn't identify with them. Similarly, Abed said that Christmas was about being with his mom and now it's about being with his friends - he didn't necessarily have any reason to want to join in Shirley's religion-based celebration either, given that for him, at that point, it was about his mother very specifically.

I mean, I'm not saying that they had the backstory of this episode in mind during Comparative Religions. They probably didn't. But I don't see how it either contradicts or denigrates anything in that episode.

Michael C. Rush said...

>>I might have said "aggressive" or "obnoxious" instead of "militant," but I certainly don't see Britta's proselytizing of her atheism as any less annoying than Shirley's harping on the subject of her Christianity.

Her mere asserting it is obnoxious? Wow. Shirley proselytizes, but I actually don't recall ever having seen Britta do so. When others bring up religion, she may mention that she doesn't have it, which is perfectly reasonable and not-at-all obnoxious. When has she gone beyond this?

George Pedrosa said...

The scene where she says that Jesus wasn't really born on December is an example of her being proletyzing and annoying the other characters.

Michael C. Rush said...

By stating a simple fact?

Anonymous said...

Got to agree with the critics here on a few points.

1) From the first episode, we always knew Abed's mother was Polish-American. Presumably she was a Catholic. Yes, the Christmas stuff is new, but not entirely out of the blue.

2) They gave Annie the last name of Edison, an English name. This isn't to say that she couldn't have had a Jewish father, of course, but it doesn't come as a big retcon that her father was Episcopalian.

3) Have to agree that Britta is neither militant, nor aggressive, nor obnoxious about her atheism. There are a couple of minor lines which can be read that way - "Come on, we're not going to let religion divide us?", which is a deeply silly thing to say about the second most divisive subject in all of human history, but it's very far from militant or aggressive. Militant, aggressive, or obnoxious atheists want to divide people by religion - believers on one side and them on the other.

Alexander said...

And now Community just did the same basic thing again, although in a less clever and less amusing fashion. The third season has been great (and been willing at points to question how healthy the group identity is) but the tone of this last episode is a jarring one to go into the unspecified-length-gap on.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I actually found this year's unquestioning embrace of Christmas more tolerable than last, perhaps because it takes that embrace for granted and goes from there, rather than establishing it (and thus contravening season 1's heartening message) as last year's Christmas episode did. Plus, I did think this year's episode was reasonably clever - the juxtaposition of Christmas, Glee parody, and horror tropes was well done (and helped somewhat to counteract the overall pro-Christmas message of the episode), and the songs were often quite inspired.

nostalgebraist said...

I'm commenting on an old post here -- I only just got around to watching Community, and I remember you'd written some posts about it.

I just saw this episode, and I absolutely loved it. And one of the things I loved about it was the way I didn't really think it was sending a message about Christmas at all. My interpretation of the ending wasn't that the group (minus Abed) actually reached a conclusion about "the meaning of Christmas," but that they knew Abed was demanding such a conclusion (because an animated Christmas special would include one), and in response had chosen to present the message most likely to help Abed through his crisis in a healthy way.

What's so great about this is that it's internally consistent and doesn't require suspension of disbelief. A lot of the time, Community is willing to completely break any pretense of realism in order to get a laugh -- for instance, by having a character say a line that doesn't make sense psychologically but fits the genre the show is making fun of. (There was a lot of this in the paintball episode, where the characters acted out war movie scenes for no reason other than that "Community's doing a parody of war movies.") In Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas, though, the characters themselves are aware of the genre parody framework, and they actively exploit that framework to further their goals. This seems to me like a much better way to do parodies, both because it distances the audience less from the characters and because it adds another layer to the story.

So when Annie sings "Christmas can also be a Hanukkah thing," I don't think we're meant to take it either as something she believes or as the show advocating a position to the audience. I think she (and the rest of the group) are just doing the best they can within the constraints "we have to say something that will allow our ailing friend to let us keep him company tonight, and we have to do that within the framework of a Christmas special's moral lesson, because otherwise he won't listen." What's heartwarming isn't the "meaning of Christmas" message, but the way the group's ingenuity in creating and presenting such a message lets them get their friend out of a bad situation.

I don't have a strong opinion about the treatment of religion in this episode per se, and I wouldn't be commenting if I just wanted to argue with you about that (it's not an issue I know much about, or that affects me personally). But my (not very strong) opinion about it is connected to one of the things I think this episode does very well -- relative to other episodes of the show -- and I thought it would be worth asking your opinion of that connection.

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