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A Very Code Switch Christmas TV Special

It's that time around Christmas, when all we can see
is the same set of specials on network TV.
Frosty, and Charlie, and Ralphie, and Kevin
But not too much brown in this mostly white canon.

Oh, is there a famous South Asian Kriss Kringle?
A Latino noel that's more than a jingle?
We know they're quite rare, but there is the reason
To trust in TV this holiday season.

No, not the standards, they're too tested and true.
These are new TV shows in brown, black, and blue ...

Every year the holiday season presents a unique opportunity for our favorite television shows to venture into that magical land of the "Very Special Christmas" episode. The great thing about these episodes is that they're usually stand-alones: firmly planted within an established universe, but able to be revisited year after year.

A Charlie Brown Christmas, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman are certain to air at some point this winter because they're a part of a firmly established, holiday-themed TV canon. We grow up watching these TV specials because they're what's on, and in time it's become tradition to share them with younger generations. We've all got our own memories connected to these shows, but there are times where the canon can feel less than representative of American diversity.

Refinery29's roundup of the "23 Best Holiday Episodes of All Time" includes episodes of The O.C., Downton Abbey and The Office. People of color pop up sporadically in the list — Ricky in My So-Called Life and Tracy in 30 Rock are notable standouts — but generally speaking, brown folks aren't prominently featured.

Luckily diversity isn't all that hard to find in newer television holiday specials (and a few older ones), even if they haven't yet become a part of the unofficial canon. We look forward to seeing an even broader canon with more depictions of Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism, but until then we've got a gift for you. We've picked a few with the blend of music, stop motion and holiday camp that makes them fit to be a part of your new holiday tradition.

Christmas Eve On Sesame Street

Children's programming is the cornerstone of most holiday specials, and even though it first aired in 1978, Christmas Eve on Sesame Street still holds up. The special's plot is expansive, incorporating elements from O. Henry's "The Gift of the Magi" as well as a number of recurring holiday tropes. Sesame Street's Christmas is set apart from most others not for the stories it tells but for its settings.

Christmas Eve on Sesame Street is distinctly urban, taking place throughout New York City and featuring an ethnically diverse cast. There's no fanfare given to the range of little brown, black and white faces contemplating the mechanics of Santa's magic with Kermit the Frog; they're just kids enjoying the holidays with friends. Not only is this episode a great introduction to Christmas specials; it is the perfect gateway to Frank Oz's Muppet Christmas Carol, which is amazing.

"Twas The Night Before Christening'

This very special episode of the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air has everything you could possibly want in a straightforward, modern holiday special. Will, in a panic to give his baby cousin Nicky a christening present befitting of the Banks family, promises to deliver a live performance by Boyz II Men. Though the outfits and musical performances are plucked right out of the early '90s, the episode's plot is pure sitcom in a way that makes it feel timeless.

'How the Super Stoled Christmas'

Based on the Brewster-Douglass housing projects in Detroit, <em>The PJs</em> continued a long tradition of sitcoms centered on working-class families.
/ Buena Vista Television
Buena Vista Television
Based on the Brewster-Douglass housing projects in Detroit, The PJs continued a long tradition of sitcoms centered on working-class families.

Rankin/Bass Productions' stop-motion, made-for-TV films are Christmastime fixtures. Their aesthetic influence can be seen in shows like Community and The PJs. Inspired by the Brewster-Douglass housing projects in Detroit, The PJs was the crass, clever brainchild of Eddie Murphy, Steve Tompkins and The Daily Show's senior black correspondent, Larry Wilmore. On its surface, "How the Supa Stoled Christmas" is just a simple riff on "The Gift of the Magi" and "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," but there's more to this episode in particular.

During its three-season run, The PJs was shot through with a biting, frank vein of class-conscious humor. The characters living within the series' eponymous housing project came from a broad range of ethnic and social backgrounds that bucked against the idea of a uniformly black and brown working class. Week to week, economic struggle was the locus around which The PJs' cast of Americans and immigrants of different races could gather. Christmas-inspired community gathering is a hallmark of canonical media, and The PJs manages to infuse that trope with a kind of diversity that feels organic instead of contrived.

The Futurama 'Holiday Spectacular'

Santabot, Kwanzaabot and the Chanukah Zombie are the members of <em>Futurama</em>'s Holiday Trinity.
/ 20th Century Fox Television
20th Century Fox Television
Santabot, Kwanzaabot and the Chanukah Zombie are the members of Futurama's Holiday Trinity.

Futurama's "Holiday Spectacular" episode is an exercise in subverting holiday parables. In Matt Groening's animated vision, Santa Claus is a menacing Terminator and Robonukah is the one of the world's most widely observed religions. Tucked into the episode are three separate vignettes focusing on Christmas, Robonukah, and Kwanzaa along with messages about protecting the environment.

The episode is irreverent to say the least, but its primary cast was one of the most ethnically diverse during the show's run. "Holiday Spectacular" is also one of the few specials featuring a musical interlude about Kwanzaa. Naturally it's sung by Kwanzaabot, who is voiced by Coolio.

'Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas'

"Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas" is an absurdist sendup to Rankin/Bass Productions stop-motion, made-for-TV films.
/ Krasnoff/Foster Entertainment
Krasnoff/Foster Entertainment
"Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas" is an absurdist sendup to Rankin/Bass Productions stop-motion, made-for-TV films.

Where The PJs' take on Christmas is grounded in the kind of heartwarming storytelling expected of holiday specials, Community's "Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas" takes the absurdist route. Similar to The PJs, Community's cast makes its Christmas show stand out. Abed Nadir, played by Danny Pudi, is one of the few Arabic characters to have ever led a Christmas special. Pudi, who is of Indian and Polish descent, is one of the few South Asian actors to do the same.

The episode's writers, Dino Stamatopoulos and Dan Harmon, could have easily written a story centered on a cultural clash within Abed's family. Instead, "Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas" folds in on itself and lampoons the holiday special genre as a whole.

Abed, who has a savantlike obsession with television, shows up to class one morning only to find his entire world stylized like a claymation movie. Following his parents' divorce, Abed takes solace in Christmas specials. As he spirals deeper into an animated musical psychosis, the episode gets more and more meta — homing in on the central role television specials like these often play in the American holiday experience.

Can't Fix 'Crazy'

/ Netflix

Orange Is the New Black's first season season finale isn't just the dramatic climax to a season of political prison tension; it's also a pretty solid Christmas special (for the grown-ups). The inmates of Litchfield Prison are a family in almost every sense of the word. As in all families during Christmastime, some things go well, and others go horribly.

Through Litchfield's various social divisions, we get an honest portrayal of different traditions as the women attempt to re-create their home lives. "Crazy" is a decidedly darker portrayal of the most wonderful time of the year, but it's also earnest. Though the women are incarcerated, the love of their nontraditional families on the inside makes their Christmas celebrations that much more realistic.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Charles Pulliam-Moore
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