Chloe Gilke: The true meaning of Christmas, according to Netflix

Sunday, December 13, 2015 - 2:36pm

I’m a sucker for Christmas. I love tacky store windows with paintings of reindeer and piles of crunchy fake snow. I love the way the smell of molasses drifts to my bedroom all the way from the kitchen when my mom bakes gingerbread men. I love the cringe-y Christmas music, especially Michael Buble’s aggressively no-homo cover of “Santa Baby.” But most of all — more than all the holiday pop culture and more than spending time with my friends and family — I love Christmas episodes of TV.

Christmas on TV is goddamn magical, a sparkly time of year when characters say what they feel and hug and show each other the meaning of friendship. There’s a reason why Christmas episodes of sitcoms are often cited as their finest hours — “Mr. Hankey, The Christmas Poo” from “South Park,” “The One with the Holiday Armadillo” from “Friends” and “The Strike” from “Seinfeld,” to name just a few classics. TV Christmases tend to be warm and satisfying, but are also saturated with drama and intrigue. The holiday coincides with the mid-season break that many network series take at the end of the calendar year, following the traditional “November sweeps” period where shows try to garner key ratings by providing jam-packed and exciting episodes.

No matter your religious affiliation (or lack thereof), Christmas episodes are prime entertainment. I grew up without any religious affiliation. Though I have relatives who celebrate both Christmas and Hanukkah, the holidays were always a time for decorations and fun secular dinners for our branch of the Gilke family tree. Christmas episodes are designed to appeal equally to those who celebrate the holiday and those who do not. Whether you celebrate Chrismukkah or are a godless heathen like myself, there’s a special, heartwarming joy in watching that “West Wing” Christmas episode.

In preparation for this column, I took a break from studying for finals to chill with Netflix and revisit a few of my favorite Christmas episodes from recent years. “The O.C.” ’s “Chrismukkah” and “Seinfeld” ’s “The Strike” have already achieved cult status, but other shows have turned out some equally great holiday episodes.

I was obsessed with the late, great NBC series “Community” in high school. (“Obsessed” is an understatement; if you could crack open my skull at any moment, Abed quotes would pour out instead of blood.) I could list off 20 episodes I know by heart, but two of my absolute favorites are the show’s Christmas-themed installments, “Regional Holiday Music” and “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas.”

“Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” should be the model of a perfect Christmas episode. Most of the episode’s events take place in Abed’s increasingly unhinged mind, as he hallucinates the study group being claymation characters and going on a WIlly Wonka-style journey to find the true meaning of Christmas. It’s simultaneously funny, heartfelt and deeply melancholy, as all holiday episodes (and holidays) tend to be.

The holiday season is an emotionally complex time of year. For those of us who have recently lost family members or suffered a break in our nuclear unit, a holiday can serve as a reminder of all those bygone “perfect” Christmases or Hanukkahs or Kwanzaas. Holidays as a construct are full of warmth and happiness, so every imperfect one feels like there is something missing. The ritual is disrupted.

As Abed takes his friends on an animated journey through the annals of his mind, it is eventually revealed why he is imagining the world in claymation. In the past, Abed’s mother came to visit him every Christmas season. But she sends him a letter saying that she won’t be able to make it this year — she has moved on, remarried and built a new family. Abed doesn’t have a place in it. The “uncontrollable Christmas” the episode portrays is his attempt to reconcile the lost ideal of a perfect holiday with the lonely state of mind he’s in. He’s stranded alone at school for the holidays, and even pop culture can’t fill the void that his estranged family left him.

Toward the end of the episode, “Community” reveals the alternative to traditional family holidays. Friends are just as important of a familial unit, and Abed’s pals rescue his holiday. As Abed’s animated self (literally) freezes into a catatonic ice block, and it’s up to the study group to sing a sweet song and melt his heart. Abed’s mother may have broken their tradition, but his friends patched the holiday back together.

One of my other favorite holiday episodes is “Christmas Party,” from season two of “The Office.” This installment is meaner-spirited than “Community,” and all the sourness is due to Michael Scott, the acerbic but lovable boss from Hell. In “Christmas Party,” Michael organizes an impromptu white elephant gift exchange because he’s dissatisfied with the hand-knit oven mitt that Phyllis made for his present. Michael preaches the merits of expensive presents: “It’s, like, this tangible thing you can point to and say, ‘Hey Man, I love you this many dollars worth.’ ” In his eyes, a cheap gift is basically a fuck-you to his entire existence. For us watching, it’s a very public (and hilarious) demonstration of his poor character.

But since this is “The Office,” a show where every biting joke is met with equal sweetness, one of the episode’s subplots deals with Jim’s heartfelt gift to Pam. He buys her a teapot stuffed with inside jokes — and a card presumably confessing his crush on her — because “Christmas is the time to tell people how you feel.” The teapot gets passed around at the gift exchange, but eventually ends up back with Pam, because she realizes that Jim put it together just for her.

If I’m a sucker for Christmas, I’m even more of a sucker for romantic gestures, and this is right up there with the best of them. (Jim-and-Pam is my paragon of perfect love, and that is my cross to bear.) On TV, Christmas is a time for telling people how you feel. This often takes the form of a kiss or a sweet gesture to close out a mid-season story arc, but just as frequently, telling people how you feel means demonstrating your commitment to a friendship and picking up someone’s fallen spirits, like Abed’s friends do for him in the “Community” episode. Maybe I missed a Bible lecture, but I don’t really know the true meaning of Christmas — nor do I really care. According to TV, Christmas is made of plot sweetness, friends and family and a teapot stuffed with inside jokes.