Dreaming of a Nonwhite Christmas: Themes of Diversity in “Rudolph” and “Community”

So it’s the holiday season. While in America numerous faiths occupy public and private spaces, there is no doubt that at this time of year the premiere Christian holiday of Christmas runs riot over all others. It is equally well-known, though, that much American celebration of Christmas is not particularly religious in nature — there is the national obsession with shopping and eating amid dreams of general self-indulgence, like the dancing gumdrops of “The Night Before Christmas.” Religious conservatives have implored Americans to “put Christ back in Christmas,” while Bill O’Reilly and the American Family Association have bemoaned a plot to replace references to Christmas with bland, secular pronouncements of Happy Holidays (the so-called “War on Christmas”).

Anti-Christian conspiracies aside, American culture has long made the holiday as much about values of giving and receiving and family togetherness than about any narrowly sectarian meaning. Christmas has even been mobilized to advance other social messages, as a number of TV classics reveal. “Look, Charlie, let’s face it,” a cynical Lucy Van Pelt said in a 1965 special. “We all know that Christmas is a big commercial racket. It’s run by a big eastern syndicate, you know.” While A Charlie Brown Christmas was more Christian in character than many other holiday programs, the classic Peanuts spirit of weariness with selfishness and commercialism shines through the most.

Similarly, the 1964 special Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, directed by Kizo Nagashima, uses Christmas as a vehicle for a gentle social critique. The claymation classic advances an awkward but sweet message that non-conformity and difference should not only be respected but also harnessed to achieve great things. Undoubtedly, the movie probably exaggerates personalities and situations to convey the point to young children. So let’s have some fun with it.

Bad Santa

From the outset, Rudolph’s father Donner responds poorly to the brightly lit nose his son has been given. When Rudolph’s mother comments that they’ll just have to overlook Rudolph’s nose, Donner responds, “How can we overlook that?” Donner’s famous solution? He basically outfits Rudolph with a dark clown nose that makes him sound perpetually congested. Despite Rudolph’s protestations, Donner responds, “You’ll like it and wear it. There are more important things than comfort, like self respect.”

Meanwhile, Santa is stressed. He’s underweight. As Mrs. Claus comments, “Who ever heard of thin Santa?” He’s irritable when the elves put on a performance for him, seeming uninterested and unimpressed. At reindeer training, despite Rudolph’s impressive skills, Santa chastises Donner and announces Rudolph unfit for service. “Donner you should be ashamed of yourself,” Santa says, scolding the reindeer for his freakish son. That Rudolph excelled did not matter because he looked different – clearly a violation of the Civil Rights Act passed the same year that Rudolph first aired. Even the father of Rudolph’s love interest Clarise declares his opposition to their love: “No doe of mine is going to be seen with a red nosed reindeer.”

Elf Hermey has also been rejected by his peers for failing to fit in. Unlike Rudolph, his nonconformity is not physical in nature – Hermey simply wants to defy elf tradition by becoming a dentist. Reindeer have black noses and elves build toys. The two outcasts unite, later joining forces with notorious ginger Yukon Cornelius, a prospector for silver and gold. Of course, the trio find its way to the Island of Misfit Toys, where a misbegotten Jack-in-the-box named Charley, a spotted elephant and other surreal characters live, overseen by a griffin-like king named Moonraiser who implores Hermey and Rudolph to help find homes for the rejected toys.

Rudolph’s visit to the Island of Misfit Toys raises questions about what the story is really all about. It is, of course, about overcoming prejudice and valuing differences. All these misfits try to cope with their difference by running away and, in some cases, forming a sort of alternative society. “I don’t need anybody, I’m independent,” Hermey says at first. Immediately, though, he asks Rudolph if he wants to “be independent together.” The “homeless” toys, meanwhile, like having a place to stay on the island, but they long to be wanted by children; each other’s company does not seem to be adequate. “A toy is never truly happy until it is loved by a child,” King Moonraiser says. The toys want to be accepted, to be useful, to be loved. This “toy ideology” has been promoted most recently in the Toy Story series, which connected toys’ materialistic existence to a more profound discussion of memory, companionship, and the inevitability of age. This humanizing of toys, imbued with feelings of attachment and loss, seems to stem from earlier cultural productions like Rudolph or its proto tragic version in 1922’s The Velveteen Rabbit.

Ultimately, all of the characters are not redeemed until they return to mainstream society and find their place. Rudolph’s contribution to saving Christmas is well known. Hermey’s peculiar career ambition comes in handy when he removes the Abominable Snowman’s teeth, preventing him from eating the heroes. Even Snowman is rehabilitated; as Cornelius declares, he just wants a job, and his height is put to use hanging stars on Christmas trees. “Maybe misfits have a place too,” narrator Burl Ives says.

In a sense, though, Christmas is still the “most wonderful time in the year” because of pleasure — toys, food, family, and fun. Tellingly, Yukon Cornelius spent most of the story hunting for silver and gold, hacking at the ground with his pickaxe and tasting the blade to see if he had struck a deposit. During Ives’ “Silver and Gold” number, a character tries to bite into a chunk of gold and finds it inedible. At the end of the story, Cornelius is delighted to have struck a payload of peppermint. The immediate, corporeal, sensuous delights of Christmas seem to outweigh the merely pecuniary — Christmas is a time for earthly delights and sparkling things.

Claymating Christmas in the Multicultural Era

A recent episode of Community titled “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” took the old claymation format and updated it for our cynical modern mindsets. The entire episode unfolds as a clear manifestation of Abed’s distorted world view. He envisions ex-professor Senor Chang as a talking snowman, representative of the Ives-voiced narrator from the 1964 movie. Their interaction is not quite so benign, as Chang reacts to Abed’s discomforting behavior: “I’m not a snow man, I’m Chang. What’s wrong with you?” The episode exaggerates the attempts by public institutions to avoid favoring any religion, as one official announces to students, “Your school acknowledges no specialness to this time of year,” designating “holiday zones” around the school for one’s particular faith. Abed, who is Muslim, wants to know the meaning of Christmas, not unlike Charlie Brown in the 1965 special. A scheming psychology professor played by John Oliver tricks Abed into a therapy session, which leads the cast of characters go to Planet Abed, the “most Christmasy planet in the universe.” As in Rudolph, a good portion of Christmas is olfactory and gastronomic; the atmosphere on Planet Abed is “75% cinnamon.”

On the planet, Abed designates each person a character that apparently represents their general personas but also Abed’s underlying issue with them. As they continue on their quest to find the meaning of Christmas at the North Pole, Abed warns, “This isn’t going to be fun, easy, or safe.” He then proceeds to eliminate several members of the cast, each time for their sins. The trip serves as a means for exacting emotional revenge for real or perceived slights. Eventually the gang discovers that Abed is reacting to his mother’s abandonment of him for her new family, and the spurned characters return to eliminate the therapy session’s psychologist in order to help Abed. Upon finding a DVD of LOST’s final season, they discover a circular and vacuous secret at the holiday’s core: “The meaning of Christmas is the idea that Christmas has meaning.” As in the sci-fi soap opera, the point of the whole adventure was really about being with the ones you love. “Thanks, LOST,” the Palestinian pop culture junkie deadpans, with more than a little snark.

Ultimately, the two works share a similar message. Irrespective of particular values or faiths, Christmas offers a common experience and a general sense of humanism – e.g. “good will toward men.” For both Rudolph and Abed, Christmas offered a chance to face their fears and find meaning, even if it is as generic as Abed’s LOST-inspired truism about togetherness. It is as if the net meaning of commercial pop culture, distilled from any number of pop artifacts, is the simple importance of camaraderie. The fact that this day of the year seems to be inscribed with meaning on some subconscious or conscious level allows for wider solidarities, only because the moment is held collectively as somehow spiritual.  Abed is Muslim and would not be expected to celebrate Christmas; as Pierce (Chevy Chase) sarcastically asks, “Don’t your people spend Christmas writing angry letters to TV Guide?” Yet it is interesting that Chase’s character, the cranky baby-boomer conservative, is the one who made it to the end without ever being eliminated by Abed. To this viewer, Pierce seemed increasingly redundant to the show as it moved into its second season, an easy reference point for jokes about age and race, but serving little other purpose. Abed’s strange odyssey into Christmas offers a way for the lonely, out-of-touch old man to redeem himself — not unlike, perhaps, the Abominable Snowman. As Community aficionado Alanna Bennett noted in a recent post, emotional desperation can prove the superglue of relationships:

Pierce is the last of the gang ready and willing to help Abed finish his quest to find the true meaning of Christmas. Here we have two characters, one in the midst of a breakdown and one who has arguably already had one. Both want nothing more than to avoid loneliness during a time of the year reserved for families. And that’s what it’s about, in the end.

Bennett continues making the larger point that when the shunned characters return, despite the apparent delusion that Abed operates under, it represents the kind of familial bonds we normally associate with the Christmas holiday: “People who will support you in your insanity no matter how many times you drag them into the strange animated world in your mind.” They accept Abed’s eccentricity much as Hermey and Rudolph were ultimately accepted by their own “communities,” and the circle of Christmas is closed at last.

Of course, the holiday specials of 1964 and 2010 differ in important ways. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer breezily accepted that Christmas was for everyone, a time for getting gifts and general merriment, while Community made it clear that the show’s atheist, Christian, Jewish and Muslim characters might feel differently about the holiday. In a pre-Diversity™ era, Rudolph celebrated differences without portraying any real difference. Its worldview seems implicitly to be that of an era of civil rights and integration.

The world of Community, on the other hand, could be described as post-postmodern, its message self referential and absurdist. Like other sitcoms that inform audiences of the moral of the story at the end of each episode, Community appears to be earnest — yet its message remains shrouded in the very irony it mocks when Abed eliminates the “bitter hipster” played by Joel McHale. Upon receiving word he was to be devoured by a flock of sarcasm-consuming humbugs, McHale remarks stoically, “Somewhere Tim Burton has a hard on” – not exactly the stuff of Burt Ives. The point of Rudolph, actually, seems more focused on material abundance, while Community is concerned with sorting out the meaning of old traditions in a multicultural, relativistic, media-saturated world (particularly for the TV-and-movie obsessed Abed, for whom all events can be interpreted through pop tropes and allusions.)

Community is, after all, not just about characters at a community college; its title implies a story of people seeking the solace of community among friends and strangers. Ethan Watters’s 2003 Urban Tribes: A Generation Redefines Friendship, Family, and Commitment anticipated this new kind of sociability, describing a world in which unmarried 20 and 30 somethings constructed new ideas about human connection. Though family remained significant, the creation of social networks substituted for families, creating what Watter labels “urban tribes.” Consisting of friends and acquaintances, these new networks replaced many of the functions that family once provided. While Watters explores a white middle and upper middle class demographic that engages in this practice, it nonetheless points to a fundamental difference between Rudolph and Community. Certainly, non-familial support systems have long existed in working class and minority communities. However, the transnational flows of people, the increasingly transient nature of employment, and host of other factors have conspired to exacerbate these developments more widely across society. Community represents this best, as Abed finds himself emotionally crushed by his mother’s abandonment, but saved by friends who care for him.

In contrast, Rudolph could always return home to Donner, the stern, insensitive father who rejected him for his physical deformity, just as Hermey could come back to the elfin workforce and their paternalistic paymaster, Santa, for ultimate acceptance. Two different visions of Christmas, for different audiences at different times in history — but both remain committed to a comfortably secularized holiday of material pleasures and warm conviviality. Perhaps most intriguingly, they both emphasize that social difference can be subsumed or dissolved or rendered moot by the irresistible powers of holiday cheer.

Ryan Reft and Alex Sayf Cummings