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A definitive ranking of 7 Christmas episodes of The Simpsons

It’s Krusty’s Non-Denominational Holiday Funfest.

‘Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the town, not a creature was stirring – not even Krusty the Clown. So gather round children, and with joy in our heart, let’s rate the festive adventures of Homer, Marge, Lisa, Maggie and Bart.

For the purpose of this exercise, a Christmas episode will be one in which the plot revolves around the holiday. So “Dude, Where’s My Ranch?” doesn’t count, despite the fact it features Homer writing the well-known Christmas song “Everybody Hates Ned Flanders”. The same goes for “Behind the Laughter”, which includes hit album Simpsons Christmas Boogie but is ultimately not about Christmas. (Also, this ranking will only go up to Season 15, because the less said about the 2010 holiday special featuring a live-action Katy Perry, the better.)

So without further ado: have a merry Christmas, a happy Hanukkah, a kwazy Kwanza, a tip-top Tet, and a solemn, dignified Ramadan.

7. Skinner’s Sense of Snow

I am of the personal and correct belief that Principal Skinner is one of the most underrated Simpsons characters and has some of the show’s best lines (“Good evening, everyone, and welcome to a wonderful evening of theatre and picking up after yourselves”). So what could be better than an episode in which he gets trapped in the school with his students by a snowstorm, ultimately to be rescued by the class hamster? However, despite its strong premise this episode is not really that memorable. Maybe this is because it’s just not as heartwarming or infused with hard-hitting moral lessons as The Simpsons’ other Christmas tales. This is a strong category.

6. ‘Tis the Fifteenth Season

This merely pretty good episode is spared from being last because of one overlooked but great Simpsons character: Homer’s talking astrolabe from the Springfield Heights Promenade – “the rich people’s mall!” I finished this episode still unsure as to what an astrolabe is. That doesn’t even matter. It also features the 1986 holiday classic, Christmas with the California Prunes (“This is offensive to both Christians and prunes!” – Lisa).

5. Miracle on Evergreen Terrace

There will be no fire truck for little Bart, no sweater for little Lisa, no Cajun sausage for little Homer – and no escaping the emotional weight of this episode. Despite being from 1997, “Miracle on Evergreen Terrace” provides some good foreshadowing of a future world in which every misfortune leads to an online fundraising page – which in turn can actually cause more problems. It also makes excellent use of Kent Brockman, who tells viewers while reporting on the Simpson family’s apparent Christmas burglary: “So while you're home today, eating your sweet, sweet, holiday turkey, I hope you'll all choke... just a little bit.”

4. Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire

The origin story of Santa’s Little Helper – and the first episode of The Simpsons’ inaugural season – carries a lot of sentimental value. But it is also a great episode in its own right. The story packs a huge amount into 20 minutes, introducing ideas which become recurring themes throughout the show – from Bart’s bad behaviour ruining Christmas to Homer going behind Marge’s back to hide a shameful secret, and things ultimately turning out OK despite his failures as a husband and father. Oh, and it brings the Happy Little Elves into our lives.

3. She of Little Faith

This episode is the closest I ever came to paying attention to an RE lesson. It’s also another appearance for Nibbles the hamster, who up until now I did not realise was such a frequent guest star. Like “Lisa the Vegetarian”, it’s a masterclass in personal growth and discovery as she explores Buddhism. What more could you want at Christmas than an anti-capitalist message, a David Bowie reference (Reverend Lovejoy refuses to ask him for help in the wake of Homer’s wanton destruction because “he’s done enough for this church”), and Milhouse and Ralph dressed up as two halves of a pony.

2. Grift of the Magi

One of the reasons I struggle to get behind the orthodoxy that “the first ten seasons are the only real Simpsons” is that this Season 11 episode is one of my all-time favourites. There is not a single line in it that isn’t funny. The maybe-occasionally-bordering-on-problematic mocking of Gary Coleman aside, it’s virtually flawless. It features Krusty’s Non-Denominational Holiday Funfest. Funzo is hysterical. There’s an underlying message about the commercialisation of Christmas and the creeping privatisation of state education. Bart confuses the words “ironing” and “irony”. Detective-mode Lisa is on fire throughout. Milhouse and Bart appear in drag at the beginning. The title is also a clever play on “gifts of the Magi” (otherwise known as the three wise men, thank you Wikipedia).

1. Marge Be Not Proud

It wouldn’t be exaggerating to say this episode is the foundation on which rests my entire moral code. It’s the main reason I have never shoplifted. For an episode which revolves around the relationship between Marge and Bart, it features a pleasing amount of Milhouse; it’s also the reason that whenever I tried to grass up my brother as a child my own mother would sarcastically shout at me: “MUM, BART’S SMOKING.” It’s one of the best depictions of peer pressure and guilt I’ve ever seen on screen (writer Mike Scully has said the plot was based on his own childhood experience). And the ending – in which Marge innocently buys the wrong video game and Bart pretends it was the one he wanted all along – hits you harder than a golf club from Lee Carvallo’s Putting Challenge.

Lizzie Palmer is the New Statesman's deputy head of production.

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Othering, micro-aggressions and subtle prejudice: growing up black and British

Afua Hirsch’s memoir Brit(ish) adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK

As every economic or political immigrant knows, the real enigma of arrival is to look in two directions. Immigrants gaze back at the homelands and family they have left behind; and they look anxiously at the customs, language and laws of the country they have adopted. Making sense of both can take a lifetime.

Afua Hirsch, the author of Brit(ish), who has worked at Sky News and the Guardian, was born in Norway to a British father and Ghanaian mother and grew up in prosperous Wimbledon, south-west London. She studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford before graduating in law. Her experience of violent racism seems to be limited, but she writes of the cumulative toll of regular infractions while studying and working as a lawyer and journalist, described as acts of “othering”, “micro-aggressions” and “subtle prejudice”.

Of visiting a shop near her home, she writes: “The harshest lessons came in my late teens, visiting my best friend at work at a boutique in Wimbledon Village. The manager told her I could not come in. ‘It’s off-putting to the other customers,’ she said, ‘and the black girls are thieves. Tell her she’s not welcome.’” On another occasion, a man on the Underground threatened to beat Hirsch with his belt because “you people are out of control”. The incidents coincided with a growing curiosity about her mother’s homeland, which is common to many second-generation children. Hirsch first visited Accra with her mother in 1995: “I don’t think I had realised that there was a world in which black people could be in charge.” In the early 2000s, she worked for a development organisation and was based in Senegal for two years. A decade later, as recession and austerity gripped Europe, she returned to Accra as the Guardian’s West Africa correspondent.

Half a century ago, Hirsch would have been described as a “returnee”; in 2012, the changing nature of global wealth and identity saw the brief rise of a more assertive term, “Afropolitan”.

But Ghana failed to provide Hirsch with an enduring sense of arrival. “For someone like me, Britishness contains the threat of exclusion,” she writes. “An exclusion only made more sinister by discovering – after so many years of searching – that there is nowhere else to go.” Like Filipinos returning home after decades in the Arabian Gulf, Hirsch felt like a privileged outsider who ostensibly viewed a poor country from the safety of a guarded community.

This section of Brit(ish) provides some of the memoir’s most valuable insights. It also could have benefited from more detail; I would have liked to have learned if, like expat Indians who have returned to Mumbai or Bangalore over the last 20 years, Hirsch considered immersing herself in Ghana’s roaring economy by opening a business. She is currently collaborating on a clothing line inspired by Ghanaian culture.

In the end, personal safety prompted an abrupt withdrawal from Accra. Hirsch and her partner returned to the UK after they were attacked on a beach on the outskirts of the Ghanaian capital. In the harrowing incident, her earrings were ripped from her earlobes and her ring was stolen. The attack also marked an introduction to an under-resourced and inept justice system. On the day of the first court appearance of the assailants, Hirsch’s partner was asked to pick them up and drive them to the hearing.

The most interesting segments of the book aren’t those that dwell on racial theory; Hirsch has yet to coalesce her views on her British and Ghanaian heritage into a unified argument. That usually takes most writers a lifetime. Brit(ish) has more in common with memoirs by other immigrants and their children whose search for education and prosperity transitions to a longer quest for identity. ER Braithwaite, the author of To Sir, With Love, wrote about what it felt like to be a second-class citizen in the UK, despite decades of service to the education sector:

In spite of my years of residence in Britain, any service I might render the community in times of war or peace, any contribution I might make or wish to make, or any feeling of identity I might entertain towards Britain and the British, I – like all other coloured persons in Britain – am considered an “immigrant”.

Hirsch’s book is also less sure about how other immigrant groups view their British experience. For instance, she cites the return of present-day South Asians to the subcontinent as being partly due to racism, but a departing diaspora, resettling in India and Pakistan for reasons such as accumulated wealth or community, has been a fixture of British life since the 1950s. A more interesting detour would have seen an exploration of British Muslims, often wrongly charged with disloyalty to the UK by commentators such as Trevor Phillips, who selectively pick out the most extreme views on integration and religion.

Instead, the memoir offers clearer ideas on how the UK could do more to acknowledge its role in the slave trade and colonialism. In the book’s most searing sections, Hirsch rightly suggests there is more to be achieved in correcting Britain’s memorials to empire – those permanent exhibitions in museums, statues and plaques that fail to acknowledge the sins of colonialism.

For instance, for 300 years, every British monarch gave direct or indirect support to the transatlantic slave trade until it was abolished in 1833. Of the 12 million slaves abducted from Africa, 40 per cent were transported on British ships. We are told slavery was outlawed on humanitarian grounds in a campaign fought by abolitionists. In reality, an overproduction of sugar crops led to reduced profits.

In Capitalism and Slavery, published in 1944, Eric Williams, the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, described the idea that slavery was abolished because of an appeal to humanitarian principles as “one of the greatest propaganda movements of all time”.

Hirsch argues these old ideas continue to hinder diversity. In 2013, only 23 students of black British African heritage were given paces to study at Oxford University. In 2016, one third of all people stopped by the police in England and Wales under “stop and search” laws were from ethnic minority backgrounds. Hirsch also highlights the worrying uptick in violence after the Brexit vote in June 2016. In the four months after the referendum, there was a 41 per cent increase in racially and religiously motivated crimes.

British public life is full of the talented children of Ghanaians who have written about racism and the push for acceptance, including rappers such as Tinchy Stryder, Dizzee Rascal and Sway. Just as Peter Fryer’s groundbreaking book, Staying Power: the History of Black People in Britain, did in 1984, Afua Hirsch’s memoir adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK. As she writes, an island nation that has benefited from centuries of immigration should reframe the question it asks some of its citizens: “I can’t be British, can I, if British people keep asking me where I’m from?” 

Burhan Wazir is an editor at WikiTribune and former head of opinion at Al Jazeera. Afua Hirsch will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Sunday 15th April.

Brit(ish): on Race, Identity and Belonging
Afua Hirsch
Jonathan Cape, 384pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist