I’m not telling the Ghost of Christmas Past how to do its job or anything. I know this is his busy time, and no matter how hard he tries, each year there’s another Christmas in his inbox–unlike Christmas Present, who can just coast. That said, if he gets a chance to drop by CBS, he should. At around this time of year back in 1999 the network aired a then little-noticed and now long-forgotten Christmas special titled Santa & Pete. A lot about how not to make television could be learned by revisiting its quirky attempt to create a politically correct Christmas myth.
Based on a book of the same name, Santa & Pete starts off with all the same atmospherics as every Christmas special you’ve ever seen. Grandpa Nicholas (James Earl Jones) and his family are snuggled fireside in his living room, unpacking ornaments. Grandson Terrence pulls out an ornament that looks like one of the three Magi, and asks who it is. If you paused it right there, you could pretty much pinpoint the moment when the writer who was adapting Santa & Pete went into the kitchen, poured himself a mug of eggnog, and stirred a tablespoon of mescaline into it.
The ornament was Pete, Santa’s sidekick. With Jones’s bass narration as a guide, the audience dives into a new history of Christmas. Hundreds of years ago, Saint Nicholas (played by Hume Cronyn sans fat suit) was making the rounds through Europe bringing goodwill and treats to children when he was arrested in Spain. The Spanish were persecuting Muslims at the time and thought Kringle was one of them. In the clink, Saint Nick meets an affable black Muslim named Pete (Flex Alexander). They bust out together and continue roaming, spreading cheer until they decide to go visit the children in this New World everyone’s been talking about.
Santa & Pete can’t be held to the same standards as the rest of TV, of course. It is, like Christmas itself, fundamentally for children’s consumption. But Christmas specials blur the line between kids TV and regular programming. Their simple warmth and hokey, familiar themes of family, charity, and hope beckon mature viewers to regress and believe, for an hour at least, in the Christmas spirit. It may be a depressing adaptation to a half-century of life lived in front of a television, but it is nonetheless true. If we end up forming a nostalgic bond with A Charlie Brown Christmas, watching it can evoke a twinge of the same dopey yulephoria that one gets watching earnest carolers on a silent night. Aside from getting you to their advertisers’ sales, most specials don’t want to do anything but make audiences feel Christmas-y. Santa & Pete aimed to get future generations attached to a contemporary virtue.
Making Saint Nick’s head elf Muslim may have tipped you off. The pair arrives in New Amsterdam. Dropping lines that could have been cut from the inside of discount holiday cards, the pair meander through the city, telling a host of more or less random characters that all peoples and cultures have something to contribute to the Christmas spirit, and that there’s good in every man. The platitudes fall so heavily it’s hard to tell one from another. Saint Nick and Pete keep mentioning how much they love the diverse cultures and peoples propped up around them. Along the way they babble a bit about delivering gifts to children on Christmas.
That gets bumped aside when Saint Nick learns that the settlers and Indians aren’t getting along. He finds an Indian village to spread his message of love to. Fortuitously, the Indians’ legends have foretold the coming of a wise man with a white beard. They promise to be peaceful, and give Nick a red jacket with fluffy white trim. Christmas may technically be a European tradition, but really, it’s as Native American as anything else. Embrace it, Santa & Pete suggests.
This Christmas ends as confusingly and multiculturally as it began. Saint Nick’s hitherto earthbound reindeers get their snouts into a “special African concoction” and bolt off into the sky, dragging him and Pete aloft to continue their Christmas mission. Maybe in China–as of the end of the special they hadn’t included any Asians.
If the Academy ever creates an award to recognize the least effort taken to make reindeers look like they’re flying, Santa & Pete should be retroactively nominated. The whole, disjointed production has the feel of something a parent would slap together if his kids were demanding to be told a Christmas story they hadn’t heard before. That’s how it had to be. Diversity isn’t really a character, or a plot twist. One can’t write a script about diversity. Those behind Santa & Pete tried, and got bland incoherence.
When it comes down to it, forced diversity and multiculturalism are often the same thing in Christmas specials as they are in social debate: big empty boxes wrapped in colorful paper.
–Louis Wittig is a writer living in New York.