It’s the holiday season, so naturally, everyone is sitting down to watch their favorite Christmas movies. But for every beloved film that gets played over and over throughout the month of December, there are dozens of Christmas-themed TV episodes that get aired once or twice before being forgotten by all but the most devoted of fans.
A Christmas episode of a favorite TV show can be even more enjoyable than a classic movie. Viewers spend years getting to know the characters on a TV show, so their investment in them is that much greater. Plus, if a show is on the air long enough, it can produce a veritable franchise of holiday episodes, not just one.
In this list, we’re looking at Christmas-themed episodes you may not have seen in a while, if ever. Some are more well-known than others, but whatever your Christmas viewing traditions, hopefully, you’ll find a forgotten gem or two.
Here are the 15 Best Christmas TV Episodes You Completely Forgot About.
15. The X-Files – “How The Ghosts Stole Christmas”
What is it about Christmas that makes it so conducive to ghost stories? A Christmas Carol is proof enough that when you combine Christmas with a good old fashioned haunting, you’re bound to get a great story out of it.
This sixth season installment of The X-Files finds Mulder and Scully investigating a haunted house on Christmas Eve. Mulder, ever the believer, tells Scully the story of two young lovers who completed a suicide pact in the house so they would never be without each other in life or death. Scully is skeptical (naturally) but follows Mulder into the house, where they are promptly trapped by the spirits within.
Played wonderfully by Ed Asner and Lily Tomlin, the ghosts (who can only haunt the living on Christmas Eve) take turns messing with the pair of FBI agents, isolating them from each other and attempting to sew distrust between them. Creating the illusion that Mulder has shot Scully (and vice versa), they almost succeed. Crawling in pools of their own blood, Mulder and Scully try to escape the house before realizing that neither of them really shot the other, and that their wounds are an illusion. With the trick exposed, they are able to leave the house and properly celebrate the holiday, while the ghosts sit by the fire and lament how close they were to claiming two more victims.
14. Hey Arnold! – “Arnold’s Christmas”
There’s just something about animation that lends itself to Christmas magic. Animated shows appear a number of times on this list, and some of the most celebrated holiday staples are animated (How The Grinch Stole Christmas, Frosty the Snowman, etc.). This episode of Hey Arnold! may not be a classic on the level of those iconic features, but it’s definitely worth a watch this Christmas.
When Arnold draws Mr. Hyunh in the Secret Santa pool, he decides that a typical gift won’t do. Knowing that Mr. Hyunh is desperately searching for his long lost daughter, Arnold resolves to find her and reunite them. Stymied by the stubborn city archivist, Mr. Bailey, Arnold all but gives up, but unbeknownst to him, his friend Helga convinces Bailey to find his Christmas spirit and help reconnect father and daughter. For a kids cartoon, it’s a remarkably touching story about a father who gave up his daughter so she could have a better life — and of the joy of their reunion.
13. Mad Men – “Christmas Waltz”
When you think about Christmas, you may not immediately think about advertising agencies in the 1960s. Then again, before Mad Men became a smash hit, nobody thought such a setting was perfect for a television show.
With Christmas just around the corner, everyone at the Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce advertising agency is on edge about something. Lane Pryce owes thousands of dollars in back taxes and scrambles to find the money, ultimately choosing to steal it from the company. Joan is livid when she is duped into receiving divorce papers at the office. Harry Crane reconnects with an old friend who has turned to Hare Krishna in his time of need. Meanwhile, Don and the other agency executives learn that the Jaguar account is back on the market, which would be a huge boon for the agency. None of the agency’s workaholics find much time to celebrate the holiday, although they do all make some progress in key areas of their lives.
12. My So-Called Life – “So-Called Angels”
If there’s a list of TV shows that were canceled before their time (oh hey, look at that!), My So-Called Life is almost certainly at or near the top. This ode to teen life in the 1990s is constantly held up as one of the best ‘teen’ shows ever made, and helped launch the careers of both Claire Danes and Jared Leto.
Canceled after just one season, this is the only holiday-themed episode the show was able to produce. A lot of Christmas stories focus on someone’s desire to find a home, or make a better one for themselves, and this episode is very much in that vein. Angela’s friend Rickie is gay and lives with his abusive uncle. Leaving home after a particularly nasty fight, he goes to Angela’s house, but leaves after he becomes concerned he’s not welcome there either, and takes to the streets. That prompts Angela and her mother to go searching for him, and they find an unlikely ally in their quest: a homeless girl who, it turns out, is actually an angel. A bit on the nose, maybe, but it’s an effectively moving story nonetheless.
11. Chuck – “Chuck vs. Santa Claus”
A series filled to the brim with charm, Chuck (like some other TV shows featured on this list) was more of a cult hit than a commercial one. Starring Zachary Levi as the titular nerdy underachiever who gets pulled into the world of espionage, the series built its loyal following thanks to episodes like this one that mixed action with laughs — and no small amount of heart.
In this second season installment, Chuck and his friends at the Buy More find themselves in a hostage situation when a high-speed chase ends with the fugitive driver crashing right through the electronic store’s front door. The driver, Ned, portrays himself as a dim but kindhearted father desperate to get home to his kids for the holidays, and Chuck develops sympathy for him while acting as the go-between between him and the police outside. It’s ultimately revealed that Ned and the police negotiator on the scene (a very menacing Michael Rooker) are members of the villainous group Fulcrum, and they identify Chuck as the key CIA asset that was being protected at the Buy More. Chuck is taken captive and his handler Sarah tracks him down, confronting Rooker’s Fulcrum agent in a Christmas tree lot and executing him when he threatens Chuck’s life.
Aside from featuring a number of great holiday tunes (and Chuck’s boss Big Mike in full Santa regalia) the episode takes its Die Hard homage to another level by including Reginald VelJohnson as (ostensibly) the very same LAPD officer he portrayed in the film.
10. Veronica Mars – “An Echolls Family Christmas”
On that long list of underappreciated TV shows that were cancelled far too soon, Veronica Mars certainly has a prominent place. Starring Kristen Bell as the titular teen detective, it was a massive cult hit, though it never scored much in the way of success with the average viewer, and it was promptly axed after three seasons. Still, it found time to produce a memorable Christmas episode.
While still investigating the murder of Lilly Kane (which serves as the main narrative thrust for the first season), Veronica takes on a smaller case, trying to discern who stole the winnings from a poker game at Logan Echolls’ house. The theft happens to coincide with a series of threats against Logan’s father, Aaron, a famous movie star.
True to her impressive deductive skills, Veronica identifies the poker thief. Aaron’s stalker goes unidentified, however, until she turns up when everyone is singing Christmas carols and stabs him. Season’s greetings!
9. Smallville – “Lexmas”
There’s something about Christmas that lends itself to ‘what if’ stories. The Ghost of Christmas Future shows Ebenezer Scrooge visions of a dark future, while the Ghost of Christmas Past compels the old miser to consider what life might have been like if he’d made different choices. Of course, It’s a Wonderful Life is arguably the most famous ‘what if’ story ever told.
Superhero stories also lend themselves well to such tales. Name a superhero, and there is almost certainly a story out there of how their lives could have been different if one minor detail were tweaked. This Smallville episode puts a unique spin on these storytelling traditions. For one thing, it’s not the hero, but the (eventual) villain, Lex Luthor, who is granted the ‘what if’ journey. And unlike George Bailey, who is shown what life would be like had he never existed, Lex is shown an entirely different (and more positive) version of his own life.
Shot by a mugger and lying in a coma, Lex dreams of a life where he cuts off ties with his manipulative father and lives a poorer, but more fulfilling, life. However, the dream turns dark when his wife (Lana Lang, in this alternate reality) dies duringlaborr and Lex, being poor, is unable to make a difference and save her. Waking up from his coma, he reaffirms that money and power are his priorities, and continues down his dark path.
8. Community – “Comparative Religion”
Community is a series known for its special episodes. From the documentary-style “Pillows and Blankets” and the horror homage “Basic Intergluteal Numismatics” to the fantastic “A Fistful of Paintballs/For a Few Paintballs More” double feature, the series has thrown the rulebook out the window on a number of occasions. Compared to those, Christmas episodes are fairly standard, and Community has produced a number of holiday-themed installments throughout its run.
It’s fairly standard, at least compared to later efforts like “Regional Holiday Music” (fire holiday rap songs are nowhere to be found) and “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” (there’s no stop-motion animation here) but it’s memorable all the same. Shirley tries to bring the study group together for a Christmas celebration, but with such a diverse group of people, it’s no surprise they can’t agree on how to celebrate — or if they should bother at all. It takes the threat of a bully (Anthony Michael Hall in a great cameo) to bring them all together for a holiday style donnybrook.
7. The Simpsons – “Simpsons Roasting On An Open Fire”
This episode may not necessarily be forgotten. After all, it served as the series premiere of The Simpsons way back in 1989, and the show is still on the air to this day (whether that’s good or bad is constantly debated by fans and critics alike). There have been no shortage of holiday episodes on the series in the ensuing years, but the very first one is memorable for a lot of reasons.
Yes, the animation is shoddy compared to today’s, and the voice cast are still finding their characters (famously, Homer sounds almost nothing like he eventually does). Still, it’s full of the trademark mix of humor and heart that would make the show such a smash hit. With the family paying for Bart’s shenanigans (for the first of many times), Homer is forced to take a second job as a mall Santa Claus in order to afford presents. When that doesn’t work out as planned, it’s off to the dog track in the hopes of winning big, but instead of loads of cash, they come home with a new member of the family: Santa’s Little Helper.
6. American Dad! – “For Whom The Sleigh Bell Tolls”
In the first of two entries from Seth MacFarlane’s animated universe, we have a very memorable episode of American Dad! The series produces a Christmas episode almost every year, but this may very well be the best of them.
In an inversion of the classic Christmas Story scenario, Stan Smith desperately wants to give his nerdy son Steve a gun for Christmas, but his wife Francine isn’t too keen on the idea. Stan finds his way around that, of course, and takes Steve out shooting. Steve opens fire on a snowman, behind which Santa Claus just happens to be standing, and the horrified teen and his family quickly bury the body and try to forget it ever happened. Before long, however, they’re receiving I Know What You Did Last Summer-style threats, and they learn Santa is alive and well (thanks to a Star Wars bacta tank at the North Pole, of course) and out for revenge.
The family winds up at a cabin in the mountains, where they are besieged by Santa, his elves and giant snowmen, and a hilariously bloody battle ensues. Surviving through the night, the family is saved when Santa has to return to the North Pole in the morning.
5. Family Guy – “Road To The North Pole”
Dipping back into the work of Seth MacFarlane, we get this two-part episode from Family Guy‘s ninth season. The series has featured Christmas in a handful of episodes, but this should be considered the best of them. It’s another in the show’s “Road To…” series of episodes, which pair off Brian and Stewie and send them on a caper to a faraway land, in an homage to the classic Road series of movies starring Bob Hope and Bing Crosby.
When he gets blown off by a lazy mall Santa Claus, Stewie vows revenge and heads to the North Pole to kill the jolly old elf. Naturally, Brian gets roped in, and the pair head north, stopping at a terribly unconvincing ‘North Pole’ amusement park before helping themselves to some Canadian hospitality and even seeing the beautiful Aurora Borealis (and, of course, the possibly even more beautiful Aurora Boreanaz pictured above). Finally arriving at the North Pole, Stewie and Brian find that Santa is depressed and near death from the constant stress of Christmas, prompting them to try to save the holiday by playing the role of Santa themselves (and failing miserably).
The episode ends with a surprisingly heartfelt message about asking for a little less each Christmas, and features two of Family Guy’s best musical numbers, ‘All I Really Want For Christmas’ and “Christmastime Is Killing Us’. It’s MacFarlane’s animated universe at its best.
4. The West Wing – “In Excelsis Deo”
The West Wing is one of the most acclaimed TV shows in recent history, and for good reason. The saga of Martin Sheen’s President Bartlet and his administration was an entertaining and informative look at the process of governance in the United States. One of the lasting takeaways from the show was that, yes, high-ranking government officials, even the President himself, are just like us; they face the same trials and tribulations, and enjoy the same celebrations.
Christmas at the White House would be memorable in any given year, but this episode relates a particularly eventful one for the Bartlet administration. When a homeless man is found dead wearing a coat that Toby Ziegler had donated to Goodwill, and Toby learns the man was a veteran of the Korean War, he is compelled to overstep his authority and arrange for a military burial, without the knowledge of the President. Elsewhere, the President’s secretary Mrs. Landingham struggles with the memories of her sons, both of whom died around Christmas time, while Josh Lyman searches for the perfect gift for his assistant Donna. Like many episodes of the series, it’s a compelling slice of life for a number of the well-written characters.
3. Supernatural – “A Very Supernatural Christmas”
The Christmas holiday we enjoy today is an amalgam of a number of traditions: the Christian celebration of the birth of Christ and the ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia, to name just two. When you combine different faiths and traditions into one modern holiday, there’s bound to be trouble; at least, that’s what Supernatural posits in this episode from the show’s third season.
It’s Christmas, and people are disappearing up their chimneys in bloody fashion. Naturally, that catches the attention of the demon hunting brothers, Sam and Dean Winchester, who immediately suspect Krampus, the demonic folklore figure known for punishing naughty children. Their search for answers initially takes them to Santa’s Village and an alcoholic Saint Nick, but that proves to be a dead end. The break in the case comes when they realize that each house that has been attacked was furnished with the same Christmas wreath. That clue leads them to the true culprits, a pair of old pagan gods masquerading as a sweet old suburban couple, and taking a number of human sacrifices every Christmas.
2. Futurama – “Xmas Story”
What do you do when you’re a 20th Century man in the far future, and your favorite holiday has been changed beyond recognition? That’s Fry’s dilemma when his first holiday season in the 30th Century rolls around. Christmas is now just Xmas, palm trees have replaced pine trees and, oh yeah, Santa Claus is a murderous robot who believes the entire population of Earth is naughty.
Like all of the show’s best episodes, “Xmas Story” takes a very relatable premise (feeling lonely during the holidays) and presents it through the prism of the goofy yet oddly plausible 30th Century setting. There may be spaceships and robots, but Christmas is still all about scrambling to find the right gift for your loved one (with the added wrinkle of being home before sundown, lest you get killed by Robot Santa).
In classic Futurama fashion, there are a ton of great little gags sprinkled throughout the episode, from the Professor sleeping through a prize-winning ski run and Hermes the Jamaican bobsledder to ‘Tinny Tim’ and Robot Santa’s habit of updating his naughty list on the fly. Plus there’s that timeless Christmas standard, ‘Santa Claus is Gunning You Down’.
1. Buffy the Vampire Slayer – “Amends”
Christmas isn’t the first holiday that comes to mind when thinking about Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The series did produce three separate Halloween episodes, after all. But one of its most memorable episodes revolved around Christmas.
During the show’s third season (arguably its best), Buffy and friends are dealing with their last year of high school while Angel, the vampire with a soul, is overcome with guilt over the actions of his soulless alter-ego, Angelus, the year before. That guilt is only heightened at Christmas time, when Angel is suddenly haunted by the ghosts of innocent people he had murdered as Angelus. These ghostly visitors are ultimately revealed to be manifestations of The First Evil, an incorporeal force seeking to restore Angelus (or, failing that, simply drive Angel mad). Buffy’s search for The First and its Harbingers leads her to a Christmas tree lot, where their evil presence underground has created a telltale copse of dead trees. Confronting The First, she learns that Angel intends to kill himself by standing under the rising sun on Christmas morning.
Rushing to Angel on a hill overlooking the city, Buffy finds him ready to give up on life, and they argue over whether he’s worth saving. Just as the sun should be rising, however, snow begins to fall — an unprecedented occurrence in Southern California. With the sun hidden behind thick clouds and the city blanketed in snow, it’s seemingly a sign from the ‘powers that be’ that Angel’s life is worth living after all.
What Christmas-themed episodes do you like to watch this time of year? Let us know in the comments.