Some of TV’s greatest holiday episodes are uplifting, some are packed with harsh realities, but the best episodes give us a little bit of everything.
50. Robot Chicken – Robot Chicken Christmas Special (2005)
When Adult Swim first premiered Robot Chicken, it was a new entirely insane take on all the nerdiest corners of pop culture and the Season 1 Christmas episode did not disappoint. Dragonball Z Christmas remains something of a classic sketch, plus the stop-motion animation sends the episode to a place mildly reminiscent of the crazy California Raisins “Claymation Christmas” special.
49. That 70s Show – The Christmas Party
Who could forget the episode that found Eric battling for Donna’s affections while Hyde gives her the sweetest, most thoughtful Christmas present while Kitty gets tipsy as State Troopers storm the Forman home to retrieve the Christmas tree Eric chopped down on the side of the highway. Kids will be kids, and those kids needed to use Red’s Christmas tree money as beer money, okay?
48. New Girl – The 23rd
This episode gave Jess and her roommates a chance to spend Christmas together while yelling at an entire neighborhood to turn on their spectacular Christmas lights at 3 a.m. It was the moment that the series ensemble truly started to feel like a family. It’s basically a Christmas miracle with Peter Pan collars.
47. Frasier – Merry Christmas, Mrs. Moskowitz
Frasier wasn’t often sentimental, but one Christmas, when Frasier meets a lovely new lady, the series managed to get to the heart of Frasier and his father’s relationship. When Frasier brings his new girlfriend and her mother over, he promises to pretend to be Jewish so he doesn’t upset her mother, obviously this ruse fails in traditional sitcom style and Frasier witnesses his girlfriend and her mother fight, come to a realization, and make up. He tries it with his own father, who’s upset over Frasier vetoing his kitschy Christmas decorations, and they fail miserably. They’re left crying and realizing their squabbles are better buried, which is an oddly adorable, totally unhealthy, and heartwarming little Christmas miracle.
46. Ren and Stimpy – Son of Stimpy
To some, this episode is known as the one that got Ren and Stimpy canceled, thanks to its dark and brutal look at love and family. When Stimpy experiences his first fart he believes it is his child. After searching endlessly for his fart, they reunite at Christmas and Stinky is happy, but decides he’s too old to stay with his “father.” Despite its disgusting animated wrapping, the episode is an oddly real look at family and holidays.
45. All in the Family – Edith’s Christmas Story
All in the Family had many Christmas episodes and with that came plenty of opportunity for Archie to spew his misinformed ideas while Edith sighed “Oh, Archie,” but the sweetest Christmas episode might just be “Edith’s Christmas Story” in which Edith has a breast cancer scare at Christmas and attempts to hide it to keep the holiday happy. Instead, Archie finds out and rushes to her side at the hospital. He may have been a backwards son of gun, but when it came down to it, he truly had love for Edith – and isn’t that what Christmas is all about?
44. The Cosby Show – Getting to Know You
This isn’t explicitly a Christmas episode – in fact, many fans of the show maintain the series never had one – but the episode delivers two very holiday moments. First, it’s an opportunity for Cliff (Bill Cosby) to get to know his daughter’s new husband. Second, and more adorably, it’s a time for Cliff to get to know his daughter’s new step-child – a tiny Raven Simone – who’s just learning the concept that men of different ethnicities dress up as Santa at Christmas. Little kids trying to understand Christmas traditions? Classic.
43. LOST – The Constant
It’s the only time LOST spent significant time on the holidays, and it did so in a big way. On Christmas, star-crossed lovers Penny and Desmond finally reunite. For those of us who came to love every single one of the LOST islanders, there’s nothing quite as heartwarming as the moment Penny reconciles with her long-lost love – even if this was the point at which LOST’s time travel really started to get out of hand.
42. Futurama – Xmas Story
Futurama is a strange bird, but we knew it had some merit when in its first season, it took the greed and corporate infiltration of Christmas on in a huge way. The concept of a terrifying killer Santa robot, created by a corporation who accidentally programmed him to be too strict in his definitions of “naughty and nice” is perfect. He deems almost everyone naughty and spends Christmas Eve killing all the naughty folks he comes across. In the end, it’s Fry’s generosity (a 500 dollar exotic bird he bought for Leela) that saves them from the murderous Clause. Despite the corporate monster, they still manage to maintain the true meaning of Christmas.
41. Roseanne – White Trash Christmas
Roseanne gave us a few Christmas episodes over the years, but none exemplified the series quite like this one (and none as good as their Halloween episodes) in which Becky gets a job at Hooters-wannabe Bunz in order to put her husband through college. At the same time, Dan bonds with Becky’s husband as they work together to put up the gaudiest, cheesiest, “white trashiest” Christmas decorations they can muster in protest to the neighborhood’s new “white twinkle lights only” rule.
40. The Flintstones – Christmas Flintstone
Christmas needs just a few elements to feel homey: Santa, reindeer, and togetherness. This Flintstones episode offers all of these things, except that Fred is Santa (filling in for the Big Guy when he comes down with a cold), the reindeer are rein-dinos, and Fred almost misses his own Christmas when he spends all night sprinkling every city in the world with Christmas presents. Wait, weren't these decidedly BC?
39. How I Met Your Mother – How Lily Stole Christmas
This take on the classic story How the Grinch Stole Christmas also turns the push and pull of Marshall and Lily’s romance on its head. As Lily is prepping the apartment for her first Christmas since her reunion with Marshall (after she ran away to San Francisco and broke his heart), she hears an old message from Ted in which he calls her a Grinch. She hoards all of the Christmas decorations in her tiny, crummy apartment until Ted visits her and tells her he called her a bitch because while he was upset that Marshall was hurting, he was also upset as a friend. Lily banishes him from Christmas and he ends up with his crazy relatives in Staten Island until Lily and the gang show up to rescue him. Who needs weird extended family when you’ve got friends like these guys?
38. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air – Deck the Halls
For his first Christmas in Bel-Air, Will wants to make himself feel a little more at home and give his cousin Ashley a taste of real Christmas, so he decorates the Banks home in flashy, non-Home Owners Association approved decorations. Naturally, the whole neighborhood (which includes Evander Holyfield) comes out in protest. Eventually, a group of neighborhood kids comes by to bestow an award for the best Christmas decorations in Bel-Air to the Banks and their “eye-sore” because it has the whimsy of a child’s idea of Christmas. The HOA gives up the fight and Will chips away at another snobby Bel-Air tradition. It’s cheesy, but it’s sweet and ridiculous, just like all of the best Fresh Prince episodes.
37. Scrubs – My Own Personal Jesus
Christmas in any hospital is one of the dreariest times of the year, something the show captures with a version of “12 Days of Christmas” that replaces the partridge in a pear tree with “a drunk who drove into a tree.” While J.D. is struggling to accept a miracle patient who woke up from a coma, Turk loses his faith after witnessing the horror in the ER on Christmas Eve. But by episode’s end, Turk finds a missing pregnant woman and he and Elliot help deliver her baby, performing a miracle and restoring Turk’s faith.
36. SNL with Alec Baldwin in 1998
This is the classic episode that not only delivered us an episode of the fake NPR show “Delicious Dish” with its guest Pete Schwetty and his famous “Schwetty Balls,” it also included a premonition. In his opening monologue, Baldwin is visited by John Goodman as the ghost of Christmas future; he sees Jimmy Fallon hosting the show in 2011 and making fun of Baldwin. This Christmas Carol parody is particularly significant, because in December 2011, it all came true. A Christmas miracle!
35. The Bob Newhart Show – His Busiest Season
Rather than focusing on the togetherness of a family at Christmastime, this episode of the long-running sitcom found Bob taking his role as a psychiatrist to a new level. When he and his wife realize something is missing from their Christmas – despite the giant pile of presents they’ve lined up for each other – Bob invites his therapy group full of people who hate the holidays. When they all get together, he teaches them how to enjoy the holiday, proving that even those who don’t have family this time of year can have a wonderful Christmas when they share it with others.
34. Veronica Mars – An Echolls Family Christmas
Not all Christmas episodes are merry and bright, and this classic episode of Veronica Mars is one of those. Veronica was solving the mystery of the missing poker game money for her classmates while her father was trying to protect a celebrity father from a stalker. Mr. Mars fails, and as carolers sing in showers of fake snow in the warm San Diego weather, Aaron Echolls is stabbed by a former lover as everyone looks on in horror. If your goal is good TV with a seasonal feel, rather than straight up holiday cheer, this episode couldn’t be more perfect.
33.The Andy Griffith Show – The Christmas Story
In typical Andy Griffith fashion, this episode is as sugary as a glass of sweet tea. After Ben, the department store owner, insists that Andy lock up a man for making moonshine on Christmas Eve, Andy does his best to bring Christmas to the inmate. When the party gets going, Ben winds up feeling lonely and starts breaking every law possible in hopes of getting locked up so he can join in on the fun. Eventually, Andy figures it out and arrests Ben, but not before the old guy gathers gifts for everyone from his own inventory. Of course, the result is a merry Christmas for all – especially Andy.
32. Taxi – A Full House For Christmas
Ah, the rare revenge tale on Christmas. In this episode, Louie’s brother Nicky visits their mother for the first time in seven years and to make up to his mother, Louie tries to get his brother to take Ma back to Las Vegas with him so she can thaw out a little from the New York winter. Nicky refuses to even visit Ma, so when he sits down for a poker game at the cab company’s Christmas party instead, Louie asks Alex to beat Nicky in poker and force him to bring Ma out for a visit. It’s a nail-biter, but Alex wins and Nicky is forced into some quality time with his mother. And isn’t forced togetherness with your family what the holidays are all about?
31. Laverne and Shirley – Christmas at the Booby Hatch
There’s not much to this Christmas episode, but it’s certainly festive. Laverne, Shirley, and company perform in a holiday variety show for patients at a hospital, but when they get there, they realize it’s a mental hospital. The show goes on and after a sneaky Garry Marshall appearance (check the background players on stage), the funny original song “The Jolliest Fat Man,” and a musical number in which Laverne breaks out her classic “singing” voice, the gang realizes that their fears about performing at a psychiatric hospital were for naught: the patients and performers come together to sing “Silent Night” and all is merry and bright.
30. Friends – The One With the Routine
Sure, this episode took place in a season that included the ridiculously annoying character Janine (Elle MacPherson), but this Christmas episode more than made up for it. While Chandler, Rachel, and Phoebe search for Christmas presents in Monica’s apartment (she cleverly hid decoys for them to find), she and Ross are at a New Year’s Eve taping. To get on camera, they do “the routine,” an insane dance from 8th grade, and they’re filmed – but only for the blooper reel. It’s nothing short of a classic Friends episode.
29. Will and Grace – Jingle Balls
While Will’s story line in this episode is somewhat forgettable – he’s worried that Grace hates his new dancing boyfriend, but really Will’s the one with reservations – Grace and Jack have one the best holiday story lines on TV. When Jack nabs a job decorating the Barney’s windows, despite the fact that Grace is a designer who’s dreamed of that job for years, he royally screws up the job and almost gets canned by his boss, played by fantastic guest star Parker Posey. When Grace sees Jack praying to Santa to help him, she works a little Christmas magic of her own and fixes the window. The true Christmas miracle comes when Jack supposes Santa fixed the window and Grace finds it in her heart to let him keep believing that.
28. Dawson’s Creek – Merry Mayhem
This episode might rightfully be called “A Merry Shit Show” because in this episode of the classic teen drama everything that can go wrong did go wrong. Absolutely every character finds an excuse to be at the Leery house for Christmas dinner (missed flights, premature romantic overtures, lack of any other friends who aren’t Dawson). Once there, Pacey’s expensive gifts cause his brother to question his new job; the Joey and Dawson connection causes predictable problems for Dawson and Natasha as well as Joey and her boyfriend Eddie; Dawson’s director Todd is generally a drunk asshole; and Audrey eventually airs everyone’s dirty laundry and crashes Pacey’s BMW into the house. The result is a call for rehab, a handful of breakups, and generally the worst possible results of any Christmas dinner multiplied by a thousand. It’s heartbreaking and one hell of a great episode, but it also makes you rather thankful for your family, who can’t be nearly as insane as these people.
27. My So-Called Life – So-Called Angels
It’s pretty simple. While Ricky heads down a dark path of his own, Angela meets an actual runaway teen angel who helps her to see how easily she could become this homeless young person. It’s certainly heavy-handed and bordering on After School Special, but it’s iconic enough to have made an impact in a very seasonal, yet dark sort of way.
26. South Park – Woodland Critter Christmas
This episode comes as a strange story born out of Cartman’s deranged mind. In it, Stan meets woodland critters who enlist him to kill the mountain lion who’s preventing the birth of their savior. He does, but it turns out the critters are devil-worshippers and their savior is the anti-Christ. They eventually enlist Kyle as a host for the anti-Christ baby and in Cartman’s story he accepts because story-Kyle wants to ruin Christmas. At the end, Santa and his helpers extract the anti-Christ via abortion and Christmas is saved. Of course, it’s Cartman’s story, so in the end, Kyle winds up dying two weeks later. And the Christmas lesson? Religion is strange and Cartman is horrible. The end.
25. The O.C. – Chrismukkah
Melodrama aside, the episode in which the ever lovable Seth Cohen explains his favorite portmanteau holiday to his new fake brother Ryan is a holiday classic. It’s a saccharine way to celebrate multi-religion households, but when Adam Brody explains the concept, it becomes a classic moment in television history.
24. The Office – A Benihana Christmas
The Office is a series that was known for its Christmas episodes. “Benihana Christmas” isn’t the best of The Office’s many holiday party episodes, but it’s up there. After Michael’s girlfriend Carol breaks up with him, Michael is left to listen to the same iTunes sample of a James Blake song over and over until Andy takes him to Benihana to meet some nice waitresses. Michael and Andy return with dates – their waitresses from the restaurant – and textbook Office ridiculousness ensues just in time for the holidays.
23. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia – A Very Sunny Christmas
Everyone knows the best Christmas episodes come with a lesson and this episode of It’s Always Sunny comes with several, including the fact that Christmas traditions are often born out of necessity – as it turns out, the only one of Mac and Charlie’s holiday traditions not born out of illegal activity is their afternoon session of throwing rocks at trains. This episode culminates with Frank’s ex-partner dropping his born again Christian act while he steals everyone’s Christmas presents and takes them down with a snow blower. Ah, tradition.
22. Parks and Recreation – Citizen Knope
This episode hasn’t yet become “classic” Christmas TV, but it’s more than worthy. Sure, the way in which Leslie Knope gets all of her friends the best, most thoughtful Christmas presents is sweet, but the real Christmas magic happens when Leslie’s friends offer to run her campaign when her advisors quit on her. It’s basically the TV equivalent of a cup of cocoa.
21. Curb Your Enthusiasm – Mary, Joseph, and Larry
A Curb Your Enthusiasm Christmas doesn’t exactly sound festive, and you’d be right. Larry gives a very Davidian take on the holiday in which he’s expected to be giving. After he insults one of the waiters at the country club, he takes his housekeeper out for lunch as part of a very uncomfortable holiday bonus, and finally, he eats his wife’s cookie Nativity and starts a fight at the church. It’s a Larry David holiday to a tee.
20. Seinfeld – The Strike
It just isn’t Christmas time without “Festivus.” You know, for the rest of us. This episode isn’t only a classic holiday episode, it’s a classic television episode in which George Costanza’s father introduces us to his made-up holiday celebrated around a bare pole instead of a tree and an uncomfortable dinner, which is marked by the “Airing of Grievances.” It’s basically your typical tense family Christmas without the tinsel.
19. MASH – Death Takes a Holiday
While the initial plot of this episode is a cute, holiday premise (and it includes Col. Potter dressed as Santa while cheering up orphans), it’s not why it’s a classic. Instead, it’s about the GI that Hawkeye, B.J., and Margaret work to save from dying on Christmas. Like most MASH episodes, it manages to make us feel and give us loads of perspective at the same time.
18. Happy Days – Guess Who’s Coming to Christmas
In this episode, Fonzie is all alone on Christmas but he’s too proud to let anyone invite him over to spend it with their families. Eventually Richie and his dad get him over for Christmas dinner under the guise of mechanical issues with their yard decorations and eventually he makes himself at home and even reads “The Night Before Christmas” (sans “Eyyyy”). It’s a simple, yet sweet little television holiday.
17. Cheers – Where There’s a Will
This holiday Cheers episode is less about presents and egg nog than it is about the true spirit of the season: generosity. When an old man comes into the bar and leaves the gang his entire fortune, everyone tries to take all the money for themselves. Selflessness prevails – at least during the holidays.
16. Community – Comparative Religion
This episode pits devout Christian Shirley against her study group friends who are all of different religions. She tries to open her Christmas party to all religions but finds it’s difficult until she witnesses Jeff observing her wish that he exhibit Christian pacifism instead of fighting with the school bully. As she watches Jeff get punched in the face in the name of friendship, she releases her inflexibility of religious understanding and helps defend him from the fray. The episode may end in a fight, but it delivers a sweet holiday message about the season being about love and acceptance instead of promoting “the right” religion.
15. Friends – The One With The Holiday Armadillo
When Ross decides he’s going to put the brakes on Christmas in order to teach his son Ben about his Jewish heritage, Ben is distraught at the notion of spending a year without Santa. As a concession, Ross finds the only costume he can – a giant armadillo – as a way to teach Ben about Hanukkah. Dressed as the “Holiday Armadillo” Ross does his best to impart knowledge about the Jewish side of Ben’s family, and as an aside, we find that Monica has a weird Santa fetish when Chandler accidentally comes in dressed as Ol’ Saint Nick.
14. South Park – Mr. Hankey, The Christmas Poo
As a Jewish kid, Kyle has issues being required to participate in a Christian holiday play at school, but suggests that he could sing about Mr. Hankey, the Christmas Poo as a compromise. Instead, he’s chastised for believing in the secular Christmas mascot and Mr. Hankey appears, but only to the people who believe in him. Since Kyle’s the only one, everyone simply thinks Kyle is acting out and carrying around an old piece of poo. He’s institutionalized and South Park’s Christmas is made secular until Mr. Hankey finally reveals himself, spreading the message that everyone has lost sight of the real meaning of Christmas. A singing piece of poop seems to understand Christmas better than most of do (do).
13. The X Files – How the Ghosts Stole Christmas
This is a Christmas episode with a bit of a spooky twist – after all, it is The X Files. Mulder calls Scully away from wrapping Christmas presents to investigate a haunted house in which a murder suicide first occurred between two lovers. Since then, other young couples have been led to commit similar acts. Two ghosts (played by the incredible Edward Asner and Lily Tomlin) play mind games with Mulder and Scully, tricking them into thinking they’re out to kill each other. At episode’s end, as haunting Christmas carols play in the background, the duo realizes they’ve been tricked and escape to exchange the Christmas gifts they said they wouldn’t give each other.
12. Mad Men – Christmas Comes But Once a Year
The reality of the holidays is that while things are cheerful and twinkly, it can also be the loneliest time of the year. Don Draper explores his deep loneliness as those around him hang tinsel and mistletoe. After the SCDP holiday party, he exerts his loneliness on his secretary only to treat her as nothing more than his employee the next day. It’s a fantastic episode and cutting depiction of a man at his lowest (well, at the time, anyway). Of course, it may not put you in the holiday mood the way some sitcoms will.
11. The Wonder Years – Christmas
This Christmas episode is special in that it treads the well-worn territory of family and memories above all else during the holidays. Kevin learns this first-hand when he visits Winnie and realizes this is the first Christmas she’ll have without her brother, who died in Vietnam. In the end, though she’s the one experiencing a terrible Christmas, her gift to Kevin is one of hope and luck: a four leaf clover. It’s a poignant, but not overly sentimental end to what appears to be a very typical holiday episode.
10. The Simpsons – She of Little Faith
Surprise, surprise, The Simpsons are all over this list. In one of their best Christmas episodes, Lisa is disgusted by church and turns to Buddhism with the help of her new friend Richard Gere. Marge lures her back into the fold with Christmas, but Lisa realizes she can have both. It’s a true testament to the level at which religion plays an emotional, communal role in one’s family and that in many respects, that’s the true value of its practice. And we get all that from a goofy Fox sitcom with an insolent young man as its main draw.
9. Arrested Development – Afternoon Delight
Christmas in Orange County could include a little Chrismukkah, but on Arrested Development, the activities are a little more absurd. The office Christmas party gets a little out of hand when Michael and Maebe accidentally sing the sex ballad “Afternoon Delight” while everything that’s not wholesome about the Bluth family comes into great relief – Lucille accidentally runs over her son-in-law Tobias when she drives on pain meds and Buster later drops his brother G.O.B. from a crane. You know, typical holiday hijinks.
8. The West Wing – In Excelsis Deo
For the members of the White House staff, Christmas seems to be just another publicity chore, but by the end the spirit of charity and giving is palpable. Toby has used President Bartlet’s name to host a special funeral for a homeless Korean War vet who died while wearing a coat Toby donated to Goodwill. There’s no Christmas miracle or twinkling afterthought, but Toby shows his humanity and it’s more in the holiday spirit than some saccharine plot concocted for seasonal cheer.
7. Community – Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas
This is ultimately one of the best deconstructions of the Christmas holiday ever. Abed views the world as stop-motion animation, which some of his friends see as a psychological condition that needs to be fixed. As a remedy, they indulge the fantasy with hopes of controlling it (hence the “uncontrollable” in the title), but find that ultimately, Abed’s Christmas wish cannot be stopped. The study group begins to understand and ultimately buys into his fantasy, because as Abed says, “The meaning of Christmas is the idea that Christmas has meaning. And it can mean whatever we want." Regardless of your affinity for Community’s referential tendencies, that’s a holiday spirit anyone can get behind.
6. 30 Rock – Ludachristmas
It’s the anti-lesson Christmas episode with a lesson. When the TGS writers throw their gifts away (admittedly ridiculous photo-scanners that are also paper shredders) and prepare for the annual debaucherous party known as Ludachristmas, Kenneth locks them in for the night so they can listen to Bible studies and watch videos of refugee children who don’t get real Christmas presents. This only leads to them attempting to cut down the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree and getting drunk anyway. Aww, we’re all terrible messes.
5. The Mary Tyler Moore Show – Christmas and the Hard Luck Kid
It’s something many folks have dealt with when they land their first big job or move far from home: the first year you don’t make it home for the holidays. When Mary has to work Christmas and Christmas Eve, it seems that her favorite holiday is completely ruined. However, on her Christmas Eve shift, her coworkers come to the rescue, bringing the holiday spirit to her and proving that even if the holiday isn’t in line with tradition, it can still be a wonderful night full of bright spirits.
4. The Office (UK) – Christmas Special Part 2
While the episode focuses heavily on David Brent’s quest for love after the office documentary has made him an infamous jerk, the real holiday magic comes when Tim finally gets his wish. While Lee has crushed Dawn’s dreams of being an illustrator, Tim’s gift is an art set with a note that tells her to never give up. She breaks up with Lee and returns to the Christmas party where she kisses Tim and makes everything right in the world.
3. The Twilight Zone – Night of the Meek
This non-spooky tale takes the stereotype of the drunk mall Santa and turns it into something of a Christmas miracle. When Mr. Corwin is fired from his seasonal department store job for being drunk, he confesses that it’s because it helps him imagine that his home in a neighborhood of tenement houses is actually jolly instead of dreadfully sad. Later, when he stumbles home, he finds a sack of presents that automatically gives people the perfect Christmas gift. He’s eventually arrested when an officer thinks he’s stolen the goods, but he proves the bag is magic and continues distributing presents to the neighborhood children until midnight, at which point an elf arrives and takes him to the North Pole.
2. The Office – Christmas Party
The most classic of all the Office Christmas episodes is this second season celebration. When Michael turns the office’s secret Santa game into a Yankee Swap because he’s disappointed with the oven mitt Phyllis made him, Jim panics because his very personal present to Pam ends up in Dwight’s hands instead. Of course, Pam eventually sees the importance of Jim’s present and trades Dwight her iPod for Jim’s teapot. They share a typically sweet Jim and Pam moment, but he, of course, removes the love letter in the box while she’s not looking.
1. The Simpsons -The Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire
This might just be the best Christmas episode ever. It’s the world’s introduction to The Simpsons as a series (and not just a part of the Tracy Ullman Show), but it’s also just a great holiday tale. Homer rushes around trying to make money for Christmas as a mall Santa and double the cash by betting on dog racing, but in the end he loses everything. At the last minute, as he and Bart look for change in the parking lot, they find the losing dog, Santa’s Little Helper, and make him the family pet. From this insane, crass family comes the best and most inspiring Christmas story of all.