Film and TV

TV's Best Christmas Episodes

It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia had one of the best Christmas episodes we've ever seen. Step it up, Stranger Things.
It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia had one of the best Christmas episodes we've ever seen. Step it up, Stranger Things. Frederick M. Brown/ Getty
A time-honored tradition among many great shows is to have holiday-centric episodes designed to pull at our heartstrings. It seems easy enough; just gather your cast, give them a holiday dilemma and wrap up with a heartwarming message about how the season has caused them to reassess their priorities.

Lots of shows have Christmas episodes, but it’s clear which ones have risen to the top and incorporated themselves into our yearly viewing habits. Does anyone actually watch The New Kids on the Block Christmas Special every year?

Some shows, like The Office and Friends, have multiple Christmas episodes, but they still didn’t quite make our list of the very best. As a bonus, we've included some suggestions for shows that haven’t aired any festive specials yet but really should.

Instant classic: “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas,” Community
Of the four Christmas-themed episodes of Community, “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” in Season 2 is the most innovative, taking the beloved study group and placing them in a stop motion-style world where they must help Abed cope with his increasingly unstable obsession with holiday traditions.

Needs holiday spirit: Succession
What does a Roy family holiday look like? We’re sure that it's likely to have a few uncomfortable dinner conversations, and we don’t even want to know what Secret Santa looks like when everyone’s trying to backstab each other.

Instant classic: “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire,” The Simpsons
The one that started it all! The very first episode of The Simpsons saw Homer battling against all means to buy presents for Marge, Bart, Lisa and Maggie after he’s snubbed for a holiday bonus. All of the ingredients of The Simpsons’ familial relationships and humor can be traced back to its debut, and nearly 700 episodes later, it remains one of the classics of the series.

Needs holiday spirit: The Boys
The Boys often has its sights on satirizing corporate greed, nationalism and media consumption — all of which could bubble to the surface with a tongue-in-cheek look at how “The Seven” is wrangled into making a holiday special. Can Homelander resist his murderous impulses and find the true meaning of Christmas? We’re not sure.

Instant classic: “In Excelsis Deo,” The West Wing
The idealism of Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing often feels dated when compared wth our political landscape, but “In Excelsis Deo” is a rarely inconclusive episode, in which the staff of President Bartlett’s office is left to cope with an upcoming media firestorm, a series of hate crimes and the unremarked-upon deaths of several veterans. Coldly touching and less snappy than The West Wing's usual, “In Excelsis Deo” is a bittersweet and moving window into the past.

Needs holiday spirit: Atlanta
The free-form, experimental nature of Donald Glover’s masterful FX comedy Atlanta makes it possible for many detours and side adventures, and we think that Glover could knock a holiday-themed episode out of the park.

Instant classic: “The Constant,” Lost
Lost’s most famous episode did the impossible, weaving a complex narrative regarding time travel with the overwhelming emotional weight of two star-crossed lovers. The Christmas Eve phone call between Desmond and Penny, two lovers separated by dimensions of time, is perhaps the highlight of the entire show.

Needs holiday spirit: Better Call Saul

What sordid scheme does everyone’s favorite corrupt lawyer have in store this Christmas? We’re not sure, but if we don’t get Bob Odenkirk pathetically dressed as a mall Santa Claus in order to grab some extra cash, it won’t be worth it.

Instant classic: “Afternoon Delight,” Arrested Development
AKA, the episode where Michael Bluth finds out that “Afternoon Delight” may not be an appropriate song to sing with his niece at an office Christmas party.

Needs holiday spirit: Ozark
Sure, the Arrested Development Christmas party was awkward, but there’s another Jason Bateman show that might up the ante on holiday anxieties. How does Marty Byrde go Christmas shopping for the family that’s double-crossed, betrayed and tried to murder him?

Instant classic: “A Very Sunny Christmas,” It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia
There are plenty of traumatic encounters with mall Santas out there, but few reach the violent highs of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s cheerfully demented Christmas episode.

Needs holiday spirit: Stranger Things
While Christmas lights have come to be associated with the Netflix original series, there wasn't enough Christmas on the show. The cryptic teaser trailer for the fourth season of Stranger Things teased a winter setting — does that mean that we’re in for a holiday treat in the Upside Down?
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Liam Gaughan has been covering film and television since before he had a driver's license, and in addition to the Observer has been published in, Schmoes Know, Taste of Cinema and The Dallas Morning News. He enjoys checking classic films off of his watchlist and working on spec scripts.