What makes a "holiday episode" of a TV series truly, truly superior? A person’s answer to that question depends heavily on how they feel about the season.
For the viewer besotted with romantic visions of a time sparkling with tiny lights and human kindness, classic homages to yuletide tales offer welcome departures from a seasonal arc. For others, the best holiday episodes skillfully acknowledge how difficult the holidays can be for a significant number of people, offering solace by reframing popular definitions of family, faith or even holiday magic. The best of them manage to offer both to both sets of people.
And so, be you a happy elf or a bit of a Scrooge, we have a list of classic episodes — some of them not actually even about Christmas — sure to offer at least a handful or two of electric sugarplums you'll want to cuddle up to this holiday season. Enjoy.
"Seinfeld," "The Strike"
There’s Christmas, and Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa, as we know. And for the rest of us, there’s Festivus. Little about about this 1997 episode of “Seinfeld” stands out beyond the climactic scene featuring the Costanzas’ eccentric holiday, celebrated on December 23, but that, friends, is more than enough. In lieu of a tree, George’s father Frank Constanza erects a simple aluminum pole, his symbolic rejection of the commercialism weighing down the American holiday season. Also, Frank can’t stand tinsel.
The family dinner is highlighted by the annual Airing of the Grievances ("I got a lotta problems with you people," Frank declares. "And now you're going to hear about it!") and topped off by the "feats of strength," mostly an excuse for Frank to force George to wrestle. Of all the ways "Seinfeld" impacted American culture, this contribution to annual traditions may be the strangest: 20 years later, people actually mount real Festivus celebrations in small motley acts of seasonal catharsis.
"Lost," "The Constant"
While not specifically about Christmas (in fact, it aired at the end of February 2008), this memorable hour incorporates the best of the drama's metaphysical appeal with an examination of time travel and the laws of physics. It's also the first in-depth look at the backstory of Desmond, one of the mysterious occupants of the island pre-dating the arrival of Oceanic Airlines Flight 815's survivors. Throughout the episode Desmond pitches a battle for his sanity as he bounces across chapters of his existence, having become "unstuck" in time.
For those who feel a little unmoored every time November and December roll around, this episode creatively serves as an examination of faith's anchoring power. In Desmond's case, he must find someone who plays a role in his past and his present to serve as a tether for his sanity, and that person is Desmond’s lost love Penny. He manages to call her on Christmas Eve 2004, something he promised he’d do in 1996. And his Penny is waiting. "I'll find you, Des," she tells him in the short time they’re afforded. "I won't give up."
"Community," "Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas"
No holiday TV experience would be complete without an encounter with a stop-motion animated special or three. "Community" did its part with this season 2 episode presented through the eyes of Greendale Community College"s resident pop-culture obsessive, Abed.
On the day before Winter Break, Abed and his study group convene and they soon realize he thinks the world has turned into a clay-animated fantasy land. As the story progresses and the group plays along with Abed's break from reality, the adventure transforms members of the ensemble into figures resembling figures from the Land of Misfit Toys and takes them to Abed's version of the North Pole to discover the true meaning of Christmas.
The truth of Abed's hallucination, however, is rooted in grief over the loss of his childhood and the end of a special holiday tradition he shared with his long-estranged mother, who left after divorcing Abed's father. But his sadness is mitigated the knowledge that his family of choice, the Greendale study group, would not outgrow him . . . or, at least not until everybody earned their degrees.
"Downton Abbey," "Christmas at Downton Abbey"
The sparkle in which Downton bedecks itself for the holidays is balm for a few broken hearts in the 2011 holiday episode, the first in which Anna Bates spends the season's celebration away from her Mr. Bates, who is on trial for murder.
While the servants make merry with a Ouija board, upstairs Lady Mary is on the cusp of marrying a ghastly newspaper publisher, Richard Carlisle. But he desires her title more than her ladyship herself. But as the episode progresses the desires of several hearts change and Mary chooses love over any threats to her reputation.
While this episode is relatively quiet as Downton chapters go, it includes that most Christmas-y of TV gifts — an engagement between two characters the audience had been shipping since the series' start. The special's ornaments appear in the form of the fantastic quips uttered by the Dowager Countess, who is fabulously enflamed by a guest whose snobbery makes her own look tame. "I doubt we'll meet again," said guest says as he's departing. "Do you promise?" she replies.
"Mad Men," "Christmas Waltz"
It makes sense that a series about advertising would ensure that its Christmas episodes would be some of its best. This season 5 entry counts as the calm before the storms rocking the episodes that follow, laying the foundation for transformative events starting with Lane defrauding the company to pay an exorbitant tax penalty.
But the highlight comes in the form of an impromptu outing with Don and Joan to cheer her up after she unexpectedly is served with divorce papers. They drive a Jaguar, cozy up to a bar and flirtatiously profess the depth and fortitude of their friendship. A wistful and lovely dance, indeed.
"WKRP in Cincinnati," "Turkeys Away"
Memorable Thanksgiving episodes aren’t nearly as plentiful as Christmas options, but among its loyal fans this holiday episode is one of the best of all time. Even those who haven't seen it may have heard of the plot, as it is based on a real event that supposedly happened at Atlanta’s WQXI, the station that inspired most of WKRP's characters.
The premise is ridiculously simple: Fearing his irrelevancy at the station, its hapless general manager Mr. Carlson dreams up a publicity stunt involving a turkey giveaway at a mall. What the staff doesn't know, and only finds out when it's too late, is that his plan involves dropping live turkeys from a helicopter hovering at a great height. Disaster ensues, inspiring one of the funniest episode-ending lines in all of television: "As God is my witness," a deflated Carlson tells his staff, "I thought turkeys could fly."
"Doctor Who," "A Christmas Carol"
Christmas Day episodes are one of the series’ most beloved traditions, but this one in particular cemented Matt Smith as a worthy inheritor to David Tennant, allowing his Doctor to dance through the many emotional colors of the Time Lord with ease and the right amount of heft. Complementing Smith's take on the Doctor is Michael Gambon in the role of Scrooge character Kazran Sardic, a man made bitter by the cruelty of his father and his grief over a love that could never be.
"The O. C.," "The Best Chrismukkah Ever"
Reflecting the situation of millions of children born in religiously mixed households, the Cohens decided not to choose one holiday over another for their Seth, creating an celebratory chimera instead: eight days of presents, and then one day with a whole lotta presents. Yes, friends, Chrismukkah.
But on the way to this mall of celebration are a number of minor tragedies tearing through the local teen scene, not the least of which involves Ryan's terrible Christmases past. Fortunately, the joint power of Yuletide merriment with the Festival of Lights makes it impossible to destroy the season, and in the end, the family gift-a-palooza is saved.
"How I Met Your Mother," "Symphony of Illumination"
There are some truths no amount of Christmas magic can change. Here, Robin, a career woman who loudly swore off motherhood, discovers that it's not even an option. As the fact of her infertility sets in, she realizes the difference between choosing a life option and having it taken away completely. As each of her friends settles more deeply into adulthood, she suddenly faces the prospect of a long, lonely life. But this is still a Christmas episode, and "How I Met Your Mother" trades in happy endings; the show’s narrator future Ted reassures viewers that Robin went on to do many amazing thing with her life. "Most importantly," he says, "she was never alone."
"The Boondocks," "A Huey Freeman Christmas"
The Adult Swim series’ sharpest episodes exist as responses to flashpoints in popular culture. But this installment takes a few pokes at our obsession with Christmas specials as well as how blindly everyone buys into American myths of Christmas itself.
"Christmas is about how Santa died for our gifts, and rose from the dead, and flew to the North Pole!" a young character tries to explain to disillusioned Huey and his brother Riley, who is more interested in extorting an unreceived gift out of Saint Nick . . . or his mall stand-in. In the end, Huey comes to his own conclusion regarding the truth of the holiday: "Christmas miracles only happen in the lies adults tell to children, and maybe in Christmas specials."
"South Park," "Woodland Critter Christmas"
In the way of all things in South Park, Colorado, a gentle if strange homage to Rankin/Bass-style holiday specials goes sideways in an instant. Stan comes across a group of innocent-looking woodland creatures and agrees to help them build a manger so their savior can be born. Unfortunately he doesn’t take into account that his new furry friends might be up to no good.
"30 Rock," "Christmas Attack Zone"
This holiday episode is for people for whose seasonal homecomings feel more like bracing for battle. It's a car-crash of rude humor and insults, with the jaw-dropping image of Jane Krakowski’s Jenna Maroney dressed as black football player Lynn Swann — part of a "two black swans"-themed couple’s costume.
But the main event involves Jack Donaghy goading his mother Colleen (the late Elaine Stritch, far and away the series' best guest star) into a Christmas confrontation for the ages. Colleen memorably kicks off dinner by greeting Jack's lover Avery thusly: "I see you brought the bag that my bastard grandchild will come in."
"Arrested Development," "Afternoon Delight"
Where other families build their holiday traditions around decking the halls, the Bluths take on the annual rebuilding of the banana stand after its annual destruction by vandals. The other family tradition involves the company's annual Christmas party, which descends into a debacle for a number of reasons, although the highlight is a hilariously uncomfortable karaoke duet of "Afternoon Delight" performed by Michael Bluth and his niece Maeby in which Michael discovers too late that the song has very adult lyrics.
"Family Ties," "A Keaton Christmas Carol"
In 1983, Alex Keaton represented the spirit of Young Republicanism: driven, undeterred and unsympathetic to anyone less fortunate than he. Above all, Alex loved cold hard cash.
So when the holidays roll around the young Master Keaton takes a while to get into the mood. That is, until his sisters Jennifer and Mallory appear to him as the Ghosts of Christmas Past and Future. The glimpse ahead is particularly bleak, with Alex living as a rich man in New York as his family scrapes along in poverty. And the show was able to get away with rehashing the most retread Christmas tale in all of literature because the Keatons were one of the warmest, friendliest TV families on the air.
"The West Wing," "Holy Night"
Aaron Sorkin’s landmark series had a number of notable holiday episodes during its run, but the emotional core of this hour is the rearview gaze at Toby"s family history. Toby's father is a felon, and that twist of fate left a scar so deep that he can’t help but take out his anger on President Bartlet. But in his hour, the writers add another level of sympathy to the character by exploring the unique bond, whether secure or frayed, between fathers and sons.
"The Addams Family," "Christmas with the Addams Family"
Every day is Halloween in the Addams household, which makes this 1965 Christmas Eve episode particularly kooky just on the face of it. But the plot plays a tale every Santa Claus believer must face at some point: A neighbor breaks it to Wednesday and Pugsley that there's no St. Nick. To a family for whom magic is real, this notion is absurd, but perhaps not as much as the adults' plan to have Uncle Fester dress up as Santa, a gambit that gets him stuck in the chimney.
"Batman the Animated Series," "Christmas with the Joker"
In many ways, this was a standard episode of the consistently excellent animated series about the Caped Crusader. The Joker escapes Arkham Asylum and takes Commissioner Gordon, Detective Bullock and Gotham TV news reporter Summer Gleeson hostage. But he does so by creating a pirate version of a variety broadcast in the style of Johnny Carson, culminating in a climactic battle set to the Nutcracker Suite and featuring gigantic toys. A treat for good boys and girls alike, for sure.
"The Big Bang Theory," "The Bath Item Gift Hypothesis"
By season 2, Sheldon Cooper was already the breakout character of this CBS hit series, but this may be the episode that solidified him as utterly lovable. At first balking at knowing that Penny had gotten him a present, expressing his annoyance at now being obligated to get her a gift, he soon becomes overwhelmed when he finds out that her gift is a napkin used by Leonard Nimoy. Parson's physical response in that moment alone makes the entire episode worthwhile.
"Supernatural," "A Very Supernatural Christmas"
Leave it to Sam and Dean Winchester to head into a holiday centered on Christian saints and somehow stumble upon demons – or, in this case, pagan gods who feed on human sacrifices. But the B-story lends heart to the monster hunt, flashing back to 1991 when Dean must explain to Sam the truth of the family business: In their world Santa Claus isn’t real, but demons are.
"Cheers," "Christmas Cheers"
Christmas is a time for cookies and candy, yes, but it’s also prime season for drunkenness, much to the chagrin of every cop. In this episode, Norm does a stint as a department store Santa, which is just perfect, and a bit of farce surrounding mistakenly traded gifts leads to perfect ending that almost proves that Christmas magic is real.
"The Office" (UK Version), "The Office Christmas Special"
As series endings go, this one is uniquely bittersweet. David Brent, the world's worst boss, is now a traveling salesman. Thanks to the intervention of a different documentary team, he's returned to his previous stomping ground for a reunion and seems as if it will end badly with an office Christmas party. Instead, in an 11th-hour surprise, the office's unrequited lovers make a brave and surprising move that saves everyone's Christmas spirit.
"Absolutely Fabulous," "Happy New Year"
Much of the stress surrounding Christmas involves reunions after long absences. This episode demonstrates when such meetings amount to a mismatch between nostalgic memory and reality, as Patsy's poison-tongued sister Jackie arrives on a carpet of unreasonably high expectation (she's "fabulous on an international scale!" Patsy declares) and promptly ruins everyone's New Year's Eve by failing to live up to her image.
"M.A.S.H.," "Dear Dad"
The exploits of the 4077th generated many holiday episodes over the years, but this 1972 entry is the first of three framed by Hawkeye writing a Christmas letter to his father. His holiday tidings aren't especially cheerful; one of its stories talks about a suicide attempt. But the message speaks of the unit's tremendous sacrifice, building to a trip to the front lines to rescue a wounded soldier.
"BoJack Horseman," "The BoJack Horseman Christmas Special"
If at this point in this article you're saying to yourself that Christmas specials are cynical cash-grabs by greedy corporations looking to squeeze a few extra Nielsen points out of sentimental claptrap for mush-brained idiots who'd rather spend their Christmas watching a fake family on TV than actually trying to have a conversation with their own dumb family, then this is the Christmas Special for you. Mostly, though, it's great because it allows a glimpse at the sitcom that made BoJack famous, "Horsin' Around."
"Parks and Recreation," "Citizen Knope"
Seasoned gift-givers like Leslie Knope love the fact that this time of year gives them an excuse to go overboard, and in this episode Leslie showers her friends and co-workers with thoughtful, creative gifts, proving how well she knows them. This infuriates thrifty, practical Ron, who shows that he's had enough by enlisting their colleagues to outshine Leslie for once, culminating in one of the most heartwarming displays of loyalty and support that anyone could hope for.
"Friends," "The One with Phoebe's Dad"
The holidays can be hardest on those of us whose lives aren't a greeting card picture, especially people who don't have families to visit. Phoebe's dilemma in this episode is that she wants to meet her real dad, a man who ran out on her and her mother when she was a kid, but fears that her image of who is and what he might bring to her life won't match reality. Unlike the outcome of the "Ab Fab" holiday episode, the cheer here remains intact.
"The Simpsons," "Grift of the Magi"
Television's iconic series began with a Christmas episode, and at this point there exists a large selection to choose from. This one is significant for its dystopian portrayal of the creeping corporatization of Christmas, as Springfield is slowly taken over by sinister robot toys. In a bizarre addition to the shenanigans, Gary Coleman makes a cameo as himself.
Critiques about the commercialization of Christmas are as timeless as Charlie Brown's animated special. This series balances the old-school priority of thrift and simplicity with the parental desire to give their children the kind of Christmas they didn't have. Everyone deserves to be spoiled now and again, right?
"The Office," "Christmas Party"
Ah, the wonders of the holiday gift swap. Sometimes terrific, usually terrible. At the Scranton, Pennsylvania, branch of Dunder Mifflin Paper Company, office manager Michael Scott transforms what should be a heartfelt tradition into an opportunity to flaunt the image of his supposed generosity, ruining several elaborate plans to give gifts of personal significance.
"The Wonder Years," "Christmas"
Think of this episode as a turducken of nostalgia, as our narrator remembers the Christmas when he and his brother begged his grumpy dad to get them a color TV. The heartfelt portion is provided by Winnie's surprise gift to Kevin, sending him off to find a flawless gift for his crush.