December 21, 2011

Jewish Culture, Commercialization, and the Glee Christmas Special


The commercialization of holidays is not a mystery to North Americans. We see it, we buy into it, and we acknowledge its presence. What struck me, after watching Glee’s Christmas special was that not only does the commercialization of Christmas make the holidays marketable, it also has the ability to marginalize religious minorities through the very same process. In last week’s episode, and unlike last year’s Christmas special, the fact that characters Rachel Berry and Noah Puckerman are Jewish, was almost completely ignored. I asked myself why this was, and all I could come up with was that Christmas sells, Chanukah doesn’t.

Apart from a mention from Sue Sylvester near the beginning of the episode that this was the time of year when “Jewish kids felt awkward”, or at the very end where Berry throws in a “Happy Chanukah” between the Merry Christmases of her Salvation Army bell ringing friends. Moreover, Berry is featured as making a Christmas list to aide boyfriend and total babe, Finn Hudson, in giving her what she wants this year for…Christmas.

I am not saying that people from other faiths and cultures cannot or should not participate in other cultures’ traditions. That would be plain racist, or something like that. My issue with this is mainly due to the fact that while Berry and Puckerman’s Jewish identity seem to be a celebratory part of their characters during the rest of the season, it is clearly kept in the closet or swept under the rug, during the Christmas episode. No mention of celebrating other traditions were mentioned, in fact, they were mocked.

Parading around the screen, pretending that a minority doesn’t exist doesn’t seem like Glee. Right?

The producers of Glee are pretty good at highlighting social diversity and addressing it in cheerful, satirically stereotypical, and sometimes fashionably flawed ways (Kurt). But, when it comes to Berry and Puckerman, especially exemplified in last week’s episode, they seem to shy away from celebrating the two character’s own diversity. The two are assimilated into the Glee Christmas pot for all of North America (and abroad) to devour.

We all understand that Glee has become a major commercial entity – the sale of songs alone on iTunes is almost endemic. A Christmas special, like all the networks successfully shove down our throats, is a typical feature of prime time television at this time of year. It also appeals to the religious and commercial majority of North America who actively believe in, or at least materialistically participate in, the Christmas holidays. I don’t think Glee feels it necessary to incorporate a more multicultural view because it doesn’t have to, particularly at a time of year when “Winter Wonderland” on iTunes has probably already sold by the million.

I do not claim to have any broad knowledge of the Jewish faith or their cultural traditions. However, I think I can make the observation, albeit from an non-Jewish perspective, that Chanukah is not, nor ever was, a commercial holiday. At least to say, Chanukah has not bent over to the corporate gods that be and kindly asked to receive “swollen goods”. Christmas is different here in the consumer pop-culture society of North America. Christmas comes out in the malls and stores months in advance, all in attempts to show you how important it is to buy shit you don’t need, while heavily supporting the Chinese economy. Stores like Walmart and K-Mart have a new “layaway” program for consumers that allow you to purchase toys and electronics at a rate of 10% of the total price as of October 17th. With a one time service charge of five dollars and a whole 48 days to pay the remainder of the total costs of your gifts, this program makes it easier than ever for people to buy shit at Christmas they don’t need!

While that was a tad off topic, I really needed to point it out mainly to highlight another way that this time of year has become such a vapid excuse to sell as much stuff to us as possible. While Glee does this in a slightly more upbeat and musical way, it still is an example of Christmas commercialization. The point here is that Glee presents a case where minority identity and culture become subsequent to majority belief systems and seasonal commercial patters of commodity.

Do you think there is a problem with this picture? Does the fact that Puck and Berry’s jewish culture is almost outright ignored raise any flags in your mind? Is it ok to be proud of your Jewish heritage during the rest of the year, but shameful during the Christmas “period” often extended way beyond the days on the calendar in order to sell us things?

About the Author

|Contributor & Photographer| MA in cultural and political communications. Currently live in Montreal with my boyfriend and his cat, Shakira. Writer, #hashtagabuser, slow food advocate, culinary master, avid photographer, hopeless romantic, handsome pants, part-time lumberjack, occasional super hero, determined professional, master of witt, and self proclaimed food and wine junkie.



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  1. Well I have to say that I liked the episode, mostly the Christmas special within the christmas special part, and strangely enough, I didn’t even pick up on this discrepancy. I couldn’t agree more with your comments about commercialization however, a little sickened by it right now myself. That said, where do you see the commercialization in the episode? I mean it seemed to me they were making a statement against it with the Rachel’s whole I need this and this and this and then coming around and giving away her cash.

    This all said, what say you about the salvation army bit? I mean, as gay as Glee is, i think they will always make choices that piss gays off somehow. The Salvation army outside stores is an iconic American image that you can’t really blame them. It represents generosity, giving, volutneerism, it is throw back. Is it that or is Glee condoning the Salvation Army? Do we just make too big of a deal?

    Great post Kyle.

    • Kyle

      No, I was not saying the episode was endorsing any commercialization of Christmas. Rather, I am saying that Glee is a commercial entity, as are other television programs – a Christmas special is just another example of tailoring your product to appeal to a specific market. My doing this, they are actively engaging in a marginalizing of two prominent characters’ cultural identities. Why couldn’t Rachel sing a dradle song or celebrate the fact that her culture is different, and rightly so, than the majority of Americans.

      The Salvation Army outside a store is an iconic christian American image. My reference to it was only to highlight one of the two times Jewish culture is mentioned. I just found it a tad ironic that of the two, it was mentioned in that context. Also, if I am not mistaken, Chanukah is over by Christmas Eve. Well, I just checked, and Berry and them are luck, this year it is rather late. But you get my point, hopefully.

  2. Georges

    This is one of many things I dislike about Glee. It is so hell-bent on representing every minority, that the story lines just end up bursting at the seams, losing focus and taking gross liberties with characters who end up having no consistency whatsoever, Viewers are left with a mash-up of superficial, often stereotypical representations that are so incredibly contrived so as to fit the format.It has set expectations that it can never reach. And so what if the Christmas Special doesn’t celebrate Hannukah? In any other show, Sue’s line would have been praised as smart and sensitive writing, and also, good enough; but in a show so over-the-top as Glee, everything that must have meaning has to be underlined, in large and bold font, and musically packaged, in other words, shoved down our throats with techniques so blatant, they would be qualified as propaganda should you switch the topic and the context. Ultimately, the discerning viewer will understand that this show is inclusive only to serve itself, and stop watching. Unfortunately, the target audience is not conditioned to be discerning in things that don’t have a price tag. Perhaps it’s for the best; money means equal opportunity for all, and that’s just about the only way Glee is celebrating minorities.

  3. Thank you for sharing this perspective. As a Jew these sorts of things always stand out to me. I don’t have a problem with Christmas specials, I get it, it sells. And even Chanukah is commercialized and Christmas-ized (if you will) to an extent. But a show celebrating diversity creates Jewish characters and ignores their Judaism unless it can be used for a joke. Interesting.

    If anyone is interested check out my blog

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