As a child, I rewatched movies obsessively, burning out VHS tapes that would squeak and whine as they were rewound so I could watch them again. As an adult, the introvert in me clings to this tradition, favoring the familiar and comfortable to the new and flashy.
“What do you want to watch?” my husband will ask, scrolling through the “What’s New” lists on various streaming platforms. Embarrassed, I’ll ask for a rerun of Seinfeld or The British Bake-off, even though I know who wins, even though I know the jokes (especially because I know the jokes: familiar and safe, if no longer relevant). In my quest for comfort, I avoid the new.
This instinct for the familiar was, of course, exacerbated by the pandemic. For nearly a year, every night I fell asleep watching (or perhaps more accurately, listening to) the Community Christmas special from Season 2. In this episode, Abed, the lovable, neurodivergent character played by Danny Pudi, becomes obsessed with finding the meaning of Christmas in a stop-motion animated, musical extravaganza. Perhaps it was the soothing tones of John Oliver’s character, Professor Duncan, walking Abed through a magic Christmas-journey-therapy-session to the Cave of Frozen Memories to understand his sudden fixation on Christmas. Perhaps it was the catchy Willy Wonka stylized songs that concisely explain the unfortunate departure of characters from Planet Abed as they half-heartedly followed along on Abed’s mission, and ultimately fail their tests of friendship. (A favorite of these songs that we sometimes sing snatchets of around the house is: “Bitter, shallow hipster, sweater matching socks. Christmas needs more presence than a haircut in a box.” ~ Beller-Annie explaining why Jeff-in-the-Box is booted off the metaphorical Christmas island.) Perhaps it was the characters’ parallel to the misfit toys of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, a childhood favorite (including Chang as a kind of Burl Ives-esque snowman). Or perhaps I rewatched this episode (sometimes more than once in a night) because Abed becomes catatonic when his mother writes to him saying that they will not see each other for the holidays, a familiar challenge in a year when I was unable to see my own mother at Christmas due to the pandemic.
However, even as I write this, I am struck by the question: is it the interruption of the routine or the lack of seeing his/my mother that is more upsetting? Aside from Christmas 2020, I have spent every year with my mom. But unlike Abed, I talk to my mom multiple times a week. Our relationship is cemented in our routine. Indeed, as someone who keeps lists, logs, journals, and calendars cataloging the day-to-day events of my life, my identity has been carefully crafted by the patterns I’ve sequenced for myself.
In the show, Abed’s mother is unable to visit because she has a new family that she must attend to. Her absence is framed under the guise that she, as his mother, is no longer needed because Abed is “a man now,” someone who does not need a mother.
“Mommy’s moved on,” Duncan announces, reading her Christmas card.
“She comes every year,” Abed reiterates, emphasizing his internalized need for tradition, for consistency. Throughout the series Abed rarely sees his mother; she is only mentioned in regards to her absence (e.g. how his parents’ divorce affects his relationship with his father). So it is not the fact that Abed misses his mother at Christmas, but rather the interruption of the tradition, of the routine – something we repeatedly see as upsetting Abed throughout the series.
But Abed is not the only one troubled by the breaking of tradition. Duncan cries when he remembers the Christmas he was told he had to move to America. This life-changing announcement is punctuated in his mind with the memory that his mum bought him Paddington books every year. For Duncan, Christmas is a time of trauma, a time of broken promises and unmet expectations that he blames his sadness on.
As Duncan/the Christmas Warlock insists Christmas sets us up for disappointment, the study group rallies around a frozen Abed, rejecting this pessimistic view. Afterall, as Jeff sings,
Christmas is “a good time to remember that it’s good to be nice!”
Ultimately, the study group learns that Christmas can mean whatever we want it to mean, and we can celebrate it however we want.
Even if that means watching this episode on repeat for a year.
And, as necessary, we can even include the occasional remote-controlled Christmas pterodactyl to help remove those pesky nay-sayers that dampen our spirits, or question our cherished routines.
Shelly Jones (she/her/hers) is a Professor at a small college in upstate NY, where she teaches classes on mythology, folklore, and writing. Find her on Twitter @shellyjansen.