The Christmas special has long served many different television shows as a way of allowing them to take their own spin on the holiday, a way for the writers to continue to tell the story of their characters and allow them to grow while still getting a little festive. Though some holiday episodes are fluffy and sweet while others focus on the melancholy undertones that can plague us during this time of year, each television show on this list has managed to tackle the season in its own special way. So grab some eggnog and fire up the TV. It's time to celebrate the holidays with some old friends!
One-off specials and TV movies were not allowed to be included on the list, so no Rudolph, no How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and, unfortunately, no Charlie Brown. Trust us, we could make a whole list about just those! But instead, here are Screen Rant’s 13 Best Christmas-Themed TV Episodes.
13 SCRUBS, "MY OWN PERSONAL JESUS" (SEASON 1, EPISODE 11)
In one of the best all-time episodes of the medical comedy Scrubs, J.D. (Zach Braff), then still an intern, is already jaded about Christmas, and working at Scared Heart Hospital around the holiday doesn’t help. But his best friend Chris Turk (Donald Faison) still manages to keep the spirit strong, that is until he works the night shift on Christmas Eve.
After seeing so many people in need of help, Turk’s spirit begins to fade. It takes a Christmas miracle to help him recover, and while the climax is probably the episode’s most memorable moment (set to Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman”), JD’s fantasies are some of his best; one even features Dr. Cox (John C. McGinley) as The Grinch. Plus the one-liners (Carla’s answer to whether or not she’s read the Bible: “I started it… But then I skipped to the end and it ruined it for me”) are purely Scrubs-tastic, with the perfect amount of sweet and irreverent.
12 THE WONDER YEARS, "CHRISTMAS" (SEASON 2, EPISODE 3)
The Wonder Years, especially in its first few seasons, managed to capture that time between childhood and adolescence perfectly, where you’re not quite sure what’s changing or why it has to, but you’re slowly beginning to understand things just aren’t really the same as they used to be. In season 2’s Christmas episode, Kevin (Fred Savage) and his siblings are obsessed with their mission to convince their father to buy them a color TV. If that isn't enough, Kevin is also perplexed about what to buy his beautiful neighbor Winnie (Danica McKellar) when she surprises him with a gift.
Innocence is somehow often lost – and sometimes gained again – during this time of the year, and the way The Wonder Years portrays it is as poignant as looking back on one of your own childhood memories, complete with the family fights, the moments where, when things don’t seem to be able to get much worse, they naturally do, and the reconciliation and laughter that follows. And, of course, the wonder of realizing that a gift will usually means as much to you as the person who gives it.
11 PARKS AND RECREATION, "RON AND DIANE" (SEASON 5, EPISODE 9)
Don’t get us wrong, “Citizen Knope" is a great Christmas episode and shows once again just how much Leslie’s (Amy Poehler) friends love her as they rally to save her campaign for city counselor. But “Ron and Diane” explores the Christmas traditions of some of the secondary characters: namely Tom (Aziz Ansari), Diane (Lucy Lawless), Andy (Chris Pratt), and April’s (Aubrey Plaza) tradition of treating themselves to a fancy dinner with the money they collect every time Jerry (Jim O'Heir), the office schlub, does something stupid. Except, once they realize Jerry has thrown a Christmas party at his house and invited everyone but them, they become determined to be let in.
In the end, the episode reminds the audience that, while often needlessly and inexplicably cruel (at least where Jerry is concerned), the characters of Parks and Recreation love each other completely and will always do anything for one another. Throw in Ron Swanson’s (Nick Offerman) warm jazz and a crazy cameo from Tammy Two (Megan Mullally) and you’ve got a traditional Pawnee Christmas.
10 THE OFFICE, "CHRISTMAS PARTY" (SEASON 2, EPISODE 10)
In its time on the air, The Office portrayed the very specific holiday events that every workplace has to endure with awkward accuracy and humor, and “Christmas Party” is no exception. Getting wrapped up in the giving and getting of gifts for people you barely know while also trying to attend a party with those same people can be torture, but it is holiday tradition after all.
Dunder Mifflin’s Christmas party captures everything there is to hate and love about Christmas with your coworkers: someone takes the event way too seriously, someone chickens out of revealing their crush on someone else, and someone attempts to turn the party into a much-too-merry affair. The fun of the episode is mostly in the end where everything pretty much turns out all right, and everyone – more or less – gets what they want. And though you may have lukewarm feelings toward your coworkers (or other, less indifferent temperatures), everyone loves a good shindig.
9 30 ROCK, "LUDACHRISTMAS" (SEASON 2, EPISODE 9)
In this early episode of 30 Rock, when Liz’s (Tina Fey) family comes to visit her in New York for the holidays, Jack (Alec Baldwin) becomes jealous of their nurturing relationship, especially when his own mother (Elaine Stritch) is so good at putting him down. Meanwhile, the rest of the gang is gearing up for their Ludachristmas party, and Kenneth (Jack McBrayer) is appalled at their lack of understanding of the true meaning of Christmas.
In the end, both storylines come to a screwed-up – albeit delightful – conclusion, especially Jack’s storyline. As Liz’s family begins to disintegrate after a long-held secret comes to light, Jack learns an important holiday lesson: even though your family can make you absolutely crazy, everyone else’s is messed up too, and remembering that simple fact can make you grateful for your own. And when your co-workers become your second family, well, that’s just the icing on the cake.
8 FRIENDS, "THE ONE WITH THE HOLIDAY ARMADILLO" (SEASON 7, EPISODE 10)
Friends was always kind of an odd show, but almost no episode was funnier or weirder than “The One With the Holiday Armadillo.” When Ross (David Schwimmer) decides to teach his son Ben about Hanukkah instead of celebrating Christmas one year, he realizes Ben will miss his visit from Santa and tries to rent a costume two days before Christmas. All the store has is an armadillo suit, but Ross throws it on anyway and dubs himself the Holiday Armadillo, Santa’s “part Jewish friend.”
Things really get weird when Chandler (Matthew Perry) shows up in a Santa suit, sparking Monica’s (Courtney Cox) apparent Santa fetish, and then Joey (Matt LeBlanc) bursts in dressed as Superman. The secondary storyline about Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow) giving Joey gifts to drive Rachel (Jennifer Aniston) out of the apartment is not normally as well remembered but is still fairly hilarious, and Chandler’s comment at the end of Ross’ retelling of the Hanukkah story – “My favorite part is when Superman flew all the Jews out of Egypt!” – is the perfect example of how silly things could get on Friends while still somehow ending up comforting and expected.
7 BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, "AMENDS" (SEASON 3, EPISODE 10)
In “Amends,” Buffy the Vampire Slayer provides us with a dark Christmas tale about Angel’s (David Boreanaz) past and the powerful First Evil that wants to make him destroy Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar). While we do get a few moments of dark humor (“So. Angel’s on top again?”), the episode mostly tackles the important teenage trials, like Willow’s (Alyson Hannigan) decision to have sex with Oz (Seth Green), and the serious existential questions that always wove their way through the narrative of the series.
Christmas can bring up thoughts about good and evil, redemption and damnation, and other weighty concepts, but Buffy always dealt with these with humor and grace. The high stakes and sentimentality of the show lends itself well to a Christmas episode, and “Amends” can make you believe in miracles as well as monsters.
6 ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK, "CAN'T FIX CRAZY" (SEASON 1, EPISODE 13)
Hanging on by a thread at the end of season 1, Orange is the New Black’s Piper (Taylor Schilling) realizes that she’s isolated herself from everyone she cares about and begins to wonder if she is even deserving of the love of another person. While that's sure to totally get you into the holiday spirit, the episode really cranks up during the Christmas pageant directed by and starring the inmates of Litchfield Penitentiary.
It’s hard to know if the moment when Poussey (Samira Wiley) breaks into “Amazing Grace” or the part where Norma (Annie Golden) suddenly ends her silence to sweetly croon “I Saw the Light” is the most touching point in the episode, but it’s clear what the show is about in these moments: flawed characters whose stories deserve to be told. And the way this scene slides into the first season’s cliffhanger ending that mixes violence with the sounds of children caroling reminds you of painful truth of where those stories are taking place.
5 THE TWILIGHT ZONE, "THE NIGHT OF THE MEEK" (SEASON 2, EPISODE 11)
In this holiday tale from Rod Serling, a department store Santa named Henry Corwin (Art Carney) is fired for being drunk on the job. He tells his supervisor that he can either drink or weep, as he watches all the hopeless and poor individuals of the city going without and grieves for them. As he stumbles into the street, he finds a bag that magically contains any gift a person asks for and goes through the city distributing presents like the true St. Nick.
A bare description of the episode can’t do justice to the sincerity and sadness of the story and its bittersweet themes, which remind us all of why we really do need the story of Santa Claus. Not only that, but Carney’s performance is incredible, and the ending wraps up in true Twilight Zone fashion with just a little bit of tinsel and magic thrown in.
4 ALLY MCBEAL, "TIS THE SEASON" (SEASON 4, EPISODE 6)
There are many Christmas episodes of Ally McBeal, and the best of these is absolutely debatable. While “Blue Christmas” is a fan favorite, then-cast member Robert Downey, Jr.’s performance in “Tis the Season” puts it over the top. Larry (Downey) tells Ally (Calista Flockhart) that he doesn’t like Christmas, which causes her to try and get him into the spirit. Sadly, his problem isn’t really something that singing carols or watching The Miracle on 34th Street can fix. Meanwhile, John (Peter MacNicol) and Ling (Lucy Liu) represent a news anchor who stated on air that there is no Santa Claus.
The episode has everything that was great about the show: unnecessary musical numbers, sentimentality, and sincere – albeit sometimes bizarre – character interactions. And Downey’s rendition of “River” by Joni Mitchell is heartbreaking. In the end, Ally realizes that she loves Larry, and sometimes, that means putting aside the over-the-top holiday cheer and just being with that person, a true lesson in selflessness.
3 Community, "Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas" (Season 2, Episode 11)
If it became noticeable that Community was kind of a weird show by the beginning of the first season, then it became completely obvious by the time "Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas" aired. As this series about a loser community college study group veered its focus from the too-cool-for-school Jeff Winger (Joel McHale) to the weird, pop culture-obsessed Abed (Danny Pudi), this is the episode where we literally went into his head.
Most of the episode was created using stop-motion animation, inspired by Abed's love for the various Rankin-Bass Christmas specials that air on television every year. As the team travels to Santa's workshop within Abed's imagined fantasy land, it's all actually a typically weird Community-style metaphor for Abed coping with the loss of his mother. Nevertheless, it's also a heartwarming and ingenius homage to the Christmas specials of years past.
2 ST. ELSEWHERE, "SANTA CLAUS IS DEAD" (SEASON 4, EPISODE 11)
In this '80s medical show about a run-down hospital in Boston and its employees, more than a few storylines abound in this Christmas episode, most of them bittersweet. When the Santa (Aaron Fletcher) hired to entertain the children at the hospital suffers a heart attack and dies, we’re led to wonder if he might not have been the real one after all. And as Dr. Westphall (Ed Flanders) bemoans the unhappiness often caused by the season, Dr. Craig (William Daniels) attempts to forget the death of his son by cranking up the holiday cheer.
As always, St. Elsewhere was about its characters, and “Santa Claus is Dead” provides a powerful turning point for many of them. The most powerful scene comes when, as Dr. Westphall enters the church on Christmas Eve for the first time in years and is embraced by his young, autistic son, Dr. Craig cannot go in, as he is unable forgive God for taking his own son away and instead stands outside in the rain. The episode makes one question what is most important to them about the Christmas holiday – and even why it matters so much – in a way that only this odd but poignant show could.
1 THE SIMPSONS, "SIMPSONS ROASTING ON AN OPEN FIRE" (SEASON 1, EPISODE 1)
There have been many Simpsons Christmas episodes since the very first show aired on December 17th, 1989, but “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire” will always be the top episode for holiday cheer in the style of our favorite yellow family. When Homer (Dan Castellaneta) doesn’t get his Christmas bonus, he takes on a second job as a department store Santa. In the end, he takes his measly earnings to the dog track with his son Bart (Nancy Cartwright) and bets it all on a dog named Santa’s Little Helper, certain he has to win. (Spoiler: He doesn’t.)
The Simpsons was always able to create a memorable moment from the very beginning of the series, whether it was Homer standing in the snow and gently lowering his head in shame, or Bart coming home with Santa’s Little Helper who becomes a permanent member of their family. The brand of the show was cemented with this holiday episode, and that’s actually rather wonderful. As Homer states when the family asks to keep Santa’s Little Helper, “But he’s a loser. He’s pathetic. He’s… a Simpson.”
That’s it for our list. If you have any favorites we missed, don’t hesitate to let us know in the comments, and have a great holiday!