For many people, the holidays are a time for good food, family, and plenty of general merriment. Even as they celebrate the holiday, though, many people also look for seasonal entertainment that can help them get into the Christmas spirit. Thankfully, there are plenty of TV shows that are more than willing to supply that entertainment. Not every TV show has done a Christmas episode, but many, many of them have at one point or another.
These Christmas episodes aren’t always great. Many of them are focused on the idea of giving and goodwill, and they’re often sentimental in a way that can feel overbearing or schmaltzy. When done right, though, a Christmas episode can be funny, deeply moving, or even a little bit of both. The very best Christmas episodes get at what it feels like to live through the holidays, whether you love the Christmas season or not.
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“Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas,” Community
Because it is perhaps the most referential show in the history of TV, it made sense that one of Community‘s first Christmas episodes would be done entirely through claymation. What made Community great, though, was that it knew how to use these story gimmicks to further the development of its characters. Abed imagines a claymation world because he wants to find the true meaning of Christmas, a holiday that has only brought him pain in the real world. It’s an episode as much about Abed’s mental health as it is about celebrating Christmas, and it’s all the better for that complexity.
“Christmas Party,” The Office
The Office was always good for a Christmas episode, but their very first is likely also their best. In the episode, an Office secret Santa is turned on its head when Michael feels like the iPod he bought Ryan the temp (totally ignoring the $20 limit on gifts) is much better than the oven mitt he received from Phyllis. As a result, he transforms the festivities into a Yankee Swap, and ruins basically everyone’s Christmas in the process. The episode also features a near miss for Jim and Pam, as he decides against revealing his feelings for her at the last possible moment.
“Arnold’s Christmas,” Hey Arnold!
There are few kids’ TV shows as profound as Hey Arnold!, and that was never more true than in the show’s genuinely moving Christmas episode. The episode follows Arnold as he’s assigned Mr. Hyunh, a Vietnamese restaurant worker, as his secret Santa. He then learns that Mr. Hyunh gave his daughter to an American soldier during the Vietnam War, and has not been able to track her down since then. The episode ends as you might expect, but that doesn’t make it any less moving. Mr. Hyunh gets the gift he wants, and the results are deeply moving.
“In Excelsis Deo,” The West Wing
Inside the White House, taking a vacation can be a near-impossible task, even over the holidays. That sad truth is at the heart of “In Excelsis Deo,” an episode of The West Wing that features President Jed Bartlet and his team dealing with global crises even as the holidays approach. The most notable subplot of the episode is Toby learning that a homeless man died while wearing a coat that he donated to Goodwill. This Christmas episode is not happy, per se, but it is a reminder of the giving spirit that is an essential element of the holidays.
“The One With the Holiday Armadillo,” Friends
Friends was never a deeply serious show, but “The One With the Holiday Armadillo” features a somewhat touching plotline about Ross’s desire to introduce his Christmas-obsessed son to Hanukkah. Ultimately, though, Ross relents and agrees to dress up as Santa to give his son the Christmas he wants. Unfortunately, there are no more Santa costumes left to be had, so he instead gets an armadillo costume and tries to entertain his son as the Holiday Armadillo. The results are as silly and hilarious as you might imagine.
“The Constant,” Lost
This list is filled with episodes all about the holiday spirit, but “The Constant” may take the cake in terms of sheer quality. The episode is widely regarded as one of Lost‘s finest, and it also happens to be set on Christmas Eve. As Desmond flashes between the past and the present, we’re treated to a wonderful, delicate story about the power of love to reach across space and time. “The Constant” is not about characters celebrating Christmas, but it gets at the heart of what the holiday is about, and the love that makes human connection possible in the first place.
“White Christmas,” Black Mirror
Even during the holidays, Black Mirror is still finding ways to depict a techno-dystopia. The episode focuses on two men trapped in a cabin together, who, after five years of barely speaking, begin to open to one another on one Christmas morning. Initially, it seems like the episode’s two dark, depressing technology-adjacent stories are going to have little to do with one another. Eventually, though, the connection emerges and proves to be as chilling as the darkest episodes of this show can be.
“An Echolls Family Christmas,” Veronica Mars
Veronica Mars is a cynical, world-weary show, and its first Christmas episode is no exception. The episode focuses primarily on Veronica’s investigation of a poker game in which someone made off with all the money, even as her father investigates a stalker who is threatening Aaron Echolls. The episode has an immensely satisfying conclusion, but it also features the banter that was one of the show’s signatures. “An Echolls Family Christmas” has a shocking conclusion, but one that feels at home with the dark, noir-adjacent world that the show inhabits.
“I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” E.R.
The emergency room is open on Christmas Day, and that means that the doctors at the heart of E.R. don’t necessarily get to spend the holiday with their families. In “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” that tension is abundant. The episode is also the last regular appearance of Peter Benton as he makes a decision about his future while his custody battle reaches its climax. There are also the normal calamities that come with time in the E.R., but “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” juggles those plotlines beautifully with the show’s ongoing story arcs.
“Miracle on 3rd or 4th Street,” Frasier
Frasier‘s sense of humor was so consistently dry and cynical that you wouldn’t think it a natural fit for a list of the best Christmas episodes. Even so, “Miracle on 3rd or 4th Street,” in which Frasier works on Christmas to take his mind off the fact that he isn’t spending the holiday with his son, manages to balance darkness with the light through its 22 minutes. The callers Frasier is hearing from are just as despondent as he is, and although there’s no enormous catharsis at the episode’s end, there is a reminder that Christmas is a wonderful holiday for some, and a bleak, depressing affair for others.
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