A harvest of holiday shows worth watching

On television, 'tis the season for children. But that doesn't mean it has to be boring or condescending or even excessively sentimental. Nickelodeon presents a couple of specials worth watching for the little ones and their families.

As Told By Ginger: an Even Steven Holiday (Dec. 10, 8:30-9 p.m.) and A Rugrats Kwanzaa (Dec. 11, 8:30-9 p.m.) are designed to help children appreciate one another's cultural holidays. There are no religious messages in either of them, but the effort is to help children explore the idea of heritage without intolerance toward others.

Ginger (voiced by Melissa Disney) discovers that her grandfather was Jewish and decides to celebrate Hanukkah. But as she learns more about Jewish traditions, she becomes a little uncomfortable with Christmas celebrations, making her best friend, Dodie, feel shut out of Ginger's life.

Of course, she is only preoccupied, not selfish. Ginger also decides that she can't deny the other side of her heritage, and so she tries to hold an "even-steven holiday party" - half Christmas, half Hanukkah. It doesn't all work out as planned. But somehow, Ginger makes the best of the season.

Little Susie Carmichael is the smallest tot in her household when energetic Aunt T. (Irma P. Hall) comes to visit her family and brings loads of unusual gifts from Africa. The Rugrats gang shows up for their usual playtime, and Aunt T. teaches them all about Kwanzaa. But the most important point Susie learns is that greatness is not a matter of winning awards or being famous, but of living everyday with kindness and dignity. Not a bad lesson for anyone.

"Nickelodeon is committed to the idea that the kids on our programs look like the kids who watch it," says Nickelodeon's chief, Cyma Zarghami. "Diversity is something we celebrate every day, and we believe kids are everyday heroes...."

The Kwanzaa special was a way to put Susie Carmichael in the spotlight. "As Told By Ginger" is really about "tween" angst. Her father is absent, and she and her brother, being raised by their mother, miss him. So, Ginger's search for identity is more complex than just discovering a bloodline. These stories are gentle and cheerful without dismissing children's problems. They are often solution-oriented and meant to reinforce kids' sense of self-esteem.

Also on the agenda for the holidays is Three Days (Dec. 9, ABC Family, 8-10 p.m.). It's soupy and sentimental, but it's still a kindly story about a man whose wife is killed on Christmas Eve (see related story, page 18). An angel (who better than Tim Meadows) offers him the chance to live the last three days over and prove to his wife that he did indeed love her. It will appeal to fans of shows like "Touched by An Angel." And even though the soft soap bubbles over, there is a thoughtful message floating up with it: It's not just the husband's behavior that has to change - it's his way of thinking.

In the same vein of sentimental fairy tales is The Seventh Stream (Sunday, CBS, 9-11 p.m.). Scott Glenn plays an Irish fisherman whose wife died in her prime. Alone with his thoughts and his books for five years, his bachelor existence is wiped away by the presence of a beautiful damsel in distress (see related story, page 20).

The fact that she comes from the sea (remember the film "The Secret of Roan Inish"?) makes her a Selkie - one of the seal people whose mystery and magic compels the fish to leap into the nets of any fisherman lucky enough to find her seal skin and hide it from her. The dastard who stole her skin is a brute who doesn't deserve her. But Glenn's character sees to it that the Selkie will flourish on land.

The complex mythology of the story is inelegantly spelled out for us. Every 20 minutes or so we are reminded that the mystery is more complex than it appears. The girl faces some kind of doom if she doesn't return to the sea.

But then, this is a fairy tale and not an exercise in realism. And what is worth watching - even though we've seen it before - is the character of the damsel, played by an exquisite actress whose presence and talent make her mysterious character naturally magical. Saffron Burrows is just the lady for the job.

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