2001: Year of the Culturally Correct Holiday Special

Charlie Brown may celebrate Christmas, but he'll need to put down his little tree and brush up on Hanukkah and Kwanzaa if he wants any facetime during the networks' we-are-the-world programming this year.

Mainstream holiday specials like How the Grinch Stole Christmas and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer are still on this year, but increasingly Hollywood is dipping into America's melting pot for new twists on the kids' holiday special.

"The networks have been criticized for not being ethnically or racially diverse in their regular programming during other parts of the year," said Adam Buckman, TV columnist for the New York Post. "The holiday season provides them with a perfect opportunity to be more diverse."

And diversify they shall. From specials about discovering the traditions of Kwanzaa to shows based on irreverent contemporary songs, the networks are shaking up the holidays.

The Proud Family is a Disney Channel series about a spunky black teen-ager named Penny Proud. Christmas is coming and Penny is focused on what's important: getting a new cell phone. But then she meets a homeless family infused with the Kwanzaa spirit, and they help curb her materialism.

And this year, the decade-old Nickelodeon series Rugrats is going for the holiday tri-fecta: the animated show has episodes about Kwanzaa (Dec. 11), Christmas (Dec. 15) and Hanukkah (Dec. 13).

The show is home to white, black and Asian tots, so it seemed natural to diversify the holidays, said Marjorie Cohn, Nickelodeon's senior vice president for production.

Irma P. Hall, 66, who provides the voice of Rugrat Susie's Aunt T, has made a point of introducing non-black friends to Kwanzaa through the years, and she's glad to see Rugrats doing that too. 

"One thing that 9/11 taught us is that we really need to know as much as possible about other people's cultures," she said. "Getting to know about all these different holidays that people celebrate, it helps to reinforce the fact that we are more alike than different."

And TV is taking inspiration from music too. Popular Christmas jingles "Santa Baby" and "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer" have each inspired hour-long TV specials.

While the title Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer (WB, Dec. 21) doesn't sound very merry, the show is recommended for kids toddler-age and up, said Sharron Thurmond, publicist for the WB, which will broadcast the show.

"I think it's a very cute, personable show," said Thurmond. "It's not hazardous to a young one's mind."

Despite the family-oriented publicity, Thurmond describes Grandma's role in the program this way: "She drinks eggnog, leaves the house and gets hit by a reindeer."

The plot revolves around a young boy's quest to track down his beloved Grandma, who is missing on Christmas Eve, and prove that Santa Claus is real. "The kids don't actually see her get hit, and even though she gets hit, she's OK, she doesn't die," Thurmond says.

Santa Baby! (Fox, Dec. 17) is inspired by Eartha Kitt's purrr-fect carol. The program features the voices of Gregory Hines, Patti LaBelle, Vanessa Williams, and Kitt herself.

The story features a young girl who uses the one wish granted to her by a magical Christmas partridge to help her songwriter father recover from writer's block. With the girl's help, the entire community comes together to rediscover the true meaning of Christmas.

"At Fox we are very interested in having diverse programming because it is reflective of the real world," said Joe Earley, senior vice president of publicity for Fox. "It's animated and we are proud to have the most animated success of all the networks."

With 'Twas (Dec. 17) HBO wraps up the past, the future and all the celebrations in one spankin' new special. It leads viewers on a musical and animated journey through the holiday seasons, including Christmas, Kwanzaa and Hanukkah. Louis Armstrong and Frank Sinatra are posthumously involved, along with sultry-voiced Macy Gray and other current singers.

But contrary to conventional wisdom, some programmers think all these adventures in multicultural programming are more for adults than they are for children. Some wonder whether kids even notice.

"The religion and ethnicity of the programs are somewhat incidental to children," insists Amy Schatz, producer and director of 'Twas. "They just like to dance around to the music, watch the animation and enjoy the magical feeling of the holiday."

Maybe adults could learn something.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.