by Julie Schmerbeck
The best holiday TV is funny. Don’t get me wrong; I love Rudolph, The Grinch, and Charlie Brown with his sad, pathetic Christmas tree bauble as much as the next TV-addicted American. However, my favorite Christmas viewings are the episodes of my favorite shows that take on the holidays with humor, joy, and heart. Here is a list of arguably the best holiday-themed episodes to ever make it to your living room.
10. The X-Files, "How the Ghosts Stole Christmas" (S6: EP6)
This is a fun, poltergeist-full ride of an episode that also satisfies all those Mulder and Scully shippers. The episode is set on a dark, cold, winter night, and the agents investigate a haunted mansion where two lovers (Ed Asner and Lily Tomlin) initiated a suicide pact, which ended with them shooting each other. Their spirits possess Mulder and Scully, intending to bring them to the same fate, but of course they escape with time to exchange gifts to keep both their lives and Christmas spirit intact.
I don’t remember all of the X-Files episodes, but this was one I always tried to find because it was so good. The great thing about this holiday special is that it doesn’t shove the holiday down your throat, but it still hits on a lot of things that make the X-Files remarkable: great story-telling, the supernatural, and sexual tension.
9. Scrubs, “My Own Personal Jesus” (S1: EP11)
I’m not sure if there’s another character on television that makes a better Grinch than Dr. Cox. Here we have two perfect tangents that eventually connect to recreate one of the most famous and iconic scenes, The Nativity. During the episode each character recommits to their own personal beliefs in order to save themselves from their own self-induced misery. Elliot insults a pregnant woman who ends up needing more help than she realizes. Turk doubts his own faith. J.D. screws up another favor for Dr. Cox. Per usual, nothing seems to go right, and then when things get stickier, everything pops back into place and everyone is cheery again. Scrubs is great at conveying the idea of redemption, and this episode in particular wraps up using the biggest reference in modern history to bring everyone to their merry ends.
8. The Office, "Christmas Party" (S2: EP10)
This is an Office classic. This episode highlights the differences of all the characters in the show, especially throughout the Yankee Swap charade. There are layers upon layers of development in this scene ,from Michael Scott buying an overpriced iPod for Ryan the temp, to Angela’s poster of babies playing saxophones, to Jim making a super thoughtful gift intended for Pam and watching him suffer as it gets passed around. The whole sequence becomes highly entertaining, while keeping you invested in seeing each character work to get their desired gift.
This is one of the first episodes that really showcases all of the unique differences of each character that sets up many arcs that take place over the rest of the series.
7. Lost, “The Constant” (S4: EP5)
If you feel nothing during this episode, then quite frankly, you have no soul. There are so many episodes that have complex, multi-layered concepts and ideas of time and space. However, this one really takes the cake by adding an emotional layer an playing with the romantic idea of having a "constant," someone from two separate times in your life that keeps you grounded to reality. Desmond spends the episode trying to reconnect with his old flame Penny who has been searching for him for three years while he was on the island, which is a very simplified synopsis. At the end of the episode, they finally are able to communicate. Penny knows he is alive, and Desmond has found his constant in the current time of 2004, so he can stay in present time so to avoid having an aneurysm and perishing. Everyone survives. It is a bittersweet ending.
This is not an obvious Christmas episode, but it certainly embraces how important those who come into our life turn out to be. The Constant is one of the best episodes of Lost, from the writing to the directing. When I think about Lost and my general feelings about it, this episode always comes up as one of best things I’ve ever watched on television.
6. Friends, “The One With the Holiday Armadillo” (S7: EP10)
If you’re a fan of Friends, I’m sure you know this one. I had never seen an Armadillo costume until this episode, nor was I aware they existed at all. Apart from the regular shenanigans, it can definitely be appreciated that they focus not only on Christmas, but also on Hanukkah by telling its origin by way of David Schwimmer in an Armadillo get-up. Once you’ve seen that, you can’t really unsee it. Of course, there is also a Santa and a Superman in the episode, and as expected, chaos ensues.
Friends, still one of the most popular shows of all time, has a common habit of making everyday situations hyperbolic, and this episode is no different. While its portrayal of 20-somethings living in New York is often farfetched, this holiday episode sticks out as heart-felt, funny, and definitely memorable. After all, you can’t have a countdown without a holiday armadillo.
5. The Simpsons, “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire” (S1: EP1)
The Simpsons are not the perfect family. In their first episode ever, they reveal themselves to be a middle-class family struggling to make ends meet at one of the toughest times of the year, Christmas. Homer struggles as the breadwinner to somehow find a way to get money to buy gifts since their money was used to fix Bart’s tattoo and Homer is denied a Christmas bonus by his no-good boss, the sinister Mr. Burns. They go to bed on a dog race, only to find the underdog remains the underdog and now also homeless as he is disowned for losing. Homer brings the dog home, “Santa’s Little Helper,” and that is gift enough for the rest of the family.
As the first episode of the still-running series, there is a tone set about family values that tugs at the heart strings for the entire 22 minutes. The general plot line hits close to home for so many of its viewers and incites a sense of hope for families who know all too well how difficult it can be to provide for a family around Christmas in a small, factory-run town. Not only is this a great Christmas episode, it’s a great pilot as well.
4. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, “Amends” (S3: EP10)
What’s Christmas without the temptation of giving into everlasting evil? This is one of the most well-liked and emotional episodes of Buffy. This is an episode for Team Buffy/Angel fans. Angel is constantly fighting between the good and evil within himself as “The First” toys with his tainted soul, working to persuade Angel to kill Buffy by torturing him with his own murderous past. In the end, Angel decides that he should off himself to avoid becoming evil again and hurting anyone else. Obviously Buffy saves the day, bad bangs and all. They talk it out in tears, and finally, it begins to snow in Sunnydale, California, seeing that the sun cannot turn Angel into dust as originally planned.
I chop this up to Joss Whedon’s brilliance for great storytelling and good writing. The argument on the hill between Angel and Buffy is chocked-full of emotions, so much that you might consider keeping a box of Kleenex nearby in case you feel so inclined to hide the tears that dare to leave trail marks on your face. Angel and Buffy hold hands, strolling through the snow, and everything seems right with the world, a Christmas miracle.
3. Parks & Recreation, “Citizen Knope” (S4: EP10)
When Leslie Knope is suspended from doing her job, she manages to find a way to continue her work in making Pawnee the best town in the world, even if it’s from the outside. Naturally, while she’s out of the office, the rest of the Parks & Rec. department avoid doing their actual jobs. Rather, they spend their time finding the perfect gift for Leslie, known for her incredibly thoughtful and personalized gifts.
Parks & Rec happens to have a selection of solid holiday episodes, but this one hits home the most. While Leslie happens to be overwhelming and overbearing at times, she is hard not to like. This is supported when her lazy staffers who generally get away with everything finally rally behind her and her campaign to run for city council. This gets a top spot due to its ability to make a bad situation into a happy ending. Leslie Knope is the kind of character that you can’t stand to see sad or hurt, which makes it impossible to dislike this episode. Watching a gang of Pawnee riff-raff support their overly positive, happy leader in order to save her from devastation as well as give her everything she could ask for and never expect makes this episode a memorable stand-out.
2. Community, “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” (S2: EP11)
Most of my friends would argue this episode deserves to be on this list, if not at the top, but it’s my list and not theirs. I only started watching Community last year, and as I made my way through the seasons, one of the things I appreciated was how the characters of Community were written into different genres and styles while maintaining definitive “Community” aspects. This stop-animation Christmas episode epitomizes just that.
Honestly, what’s not to love about this episode? There’s claymation, there’s music, there’s accurate and creative representations of each character, and there’s a message at the end of the story which validates all of the audience who don’t buy into the glitz and pine-scented glamor of commercialized Christmas, a message that Christmas can mean whatever you want it to mean. Of course, it is closed out with Troy and Abed exchanging their claymation heads, putting a nice, little button on the end of a manic, cultural-reference-filled, fun holiday episode.
1. Hey Arnold!, “Arnold’s Christmas” (S1: EP11)
This has been the one episode that I watch every year, and I still cry every time. City kids take on materialism, consumerism, and the consequences of the Vietnam War in this one. We see all sides of the coin. Arnold and Gerald want to do their friend Mr. Hyunh a solid and track down his daughter, who he was separated from him during the Vietnam War, in order to see her to safety in America. Meanwhile, Helga argues with her parents about getting the trendiest gift of the season and tries to figure out the perfect gift to give her unrequited love, Arnold. In the end, it’s Helga who does the selfless act of exchanging her precious boots in order track down and contact the missing daughter. The episode ends with what Arnold believes to be a “miracle,” and Helga having found Arnold’s “perfect gift.”
Nothing says Christmas like a long-lost reunion. The show goes so far as to show one of the most heart-wrenching parts of the War, the Americans taking who they could and leaving a devastated country, all in animation. This holiday special is, in my opinion, the best one because it shows kids being compassionate and humane to each other while touching on a lot of mature subject matter, which this show often ended up doing during its regular seasons. It encompasses the idea of what Christmas spirit should be while respecting the intelligence of a young audience.