Now that we've officially entered the holiday season, the networks have begun to dust off the shelves of their video libraries labeled "Holiday stuff." The Grinch, Charlie Brown, and even good ol' George Bailey are getting their annual moments in the spotlight, and while I'm definitely not complaining about this, personally I prefer to get my Christmas nostalgia fix from the actual TV shows I've watched and loved. Nothing against the Peanuts gang, or whatever computer-animated movie tie-ins other people prefer, but when characters I'm more familiar with are celebrating the holidays, that's where I want to be.
So here are a few of our picks for TV's best holiday episodes. What are yours?
Episode: "Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire"
Most people's first introduction to the Simpson family was through this episode, the first-ever full episode of The Simpsons to air on Fox. Although the series was already in production (and this was originally intended to be its eighth episode), Fox decided to air it as a holiday special. I remember that my family gathered to watch it (my mom was almost immediately outraged by its coarseness), and then the next day at school everyone was talking about it. We all loved how Bart lied about his age to get a tattoo and how badly Homer's attempts at decorating the house went, but what's most notable about this episode today is just how sad it is. The Simpsons began as a fairly thoughtful portrayal of a lower-middle-class family, and Homer's inability to afford Christmas gifts for his family was a straight-up bummer. Fortunately everything ended on an up note, when Homer rescued Santa's Little Helper (the last-place finishing greyhound from the dog track) and he turned out to be just the right present for the family.
Episode: "Christmas Party"
Not to be controversial, but even today, in its eighth, post-Michael Scott season, The Office remains a reliably hilarious show. But there's certainly no denying that it'll probably never regain the creative energy of Seasons 2 or 3, and that could simply be due to those seasons' still-awkward personal relationships. In the Season 2 episode "Christmas Party," Jim and Pam's connection was still unspoken when he drew her name in the Secret Santa gift exchange. Using the opportunity to give her a very thoughtful gift, a teapot filled with personal items and even a love note, Jim saw his effort suddenly turn disastrous when Michael Scott announced a "Yankee Swap," in which co-workers could poach each other's gifts. The Office is truly on fire whenever it can nail both workplace awkwardness and frustrated romance, and that this episode did both with the added layer of holiday poignancy just makes it an all-time classic.
Episode: "The Best Chrismukkah Ever"
I assure you, I'm not writing about The O.C. for the second week in a row simply to post another picture of Adam Brody. But yeah, just look at him up there with that candy cane and menorah! Anyway, the Season 1 holiday episode, "The Best Chrismukkah Ever," created a buzzword in an already watercooler-worthy season. "Chrismukkah" may have been a cute distillation of two holidays, but it actually represented something pretty thoughtful about the state of modern America, our mixed faiths, and our common love of celebration. Add to that the first ever appearance of Oliver, The O.C.'s most notorious villain, and this episode had all the markings of a winner.
Episode: "Christmas Special"
Grace Jones. Cher. Charo. Frankie & Annette. Shirtless construction workers. Just a normal children's Christmas special, really. It's honestly hard to describe just how great, weird, wonderful and hilarious the Pee-wee's Playhouse Christmas Special is. Ooops, I just did!
Episode: "No Place Like Home for the Holidays"
Roseanne's status as an American classic is mainly due to its ability to turn everyday middle-class bummers into relatably hilarious moments. The show may have been fronted by a brusque, bossy mom, but it never lacked for heart, and all these elements seemed to gel perfectly during Roseanne's various holiday episodes. This Season 5 episode found the Conners forced apart by a snowstorm and Darlene discovering just how bad David's home life was. The family's eventual reunion was made all the more powerful by the reminder that despite, their flaws and shortcomings, the Conners really had it made.
Episode: "Christmas Eve on Sesame Street"
Few people remember that back in the heady, pre-Elmo days of 1978, Sesame Street was considered fairly edgy for children's television. I mean, think about it: Sesame Street itself was in kind of a junky neighborhood, and the show didn't shy away from more adult concepts presented in thoughtful ways. In "Christmas Eve on Sesame Street," Bert and Ernie touchingly acted out their own version of O. Henry's "The Gift of the Magi" (if you're not familiar, the 10-minute clip is absolutely worth your time), plus the episode tackled the topic of "How does Santa deliver presents to houses that don't have chimneys?"—which was major for kids who didn't grow up with a working fireplace. Yes, in retrospect, the opening with Big Bird throwing a little girl around an ice rink and Oscar the Grouch on skates feels kind of dated and weird, but that heartfelt weirdness is part of what makes this a treasure worth holding onto.
Episode: "Christmas Special, Part 2"
The original U.K. version of The Office only ran for 14 episodes, but they were perfect. It's a bit of a cheat to single out this Christmas special as a high-point when it was also the series finale, but still: This thing is great. Few expected such a devastatingly grim series to end on such a poignant, emotionally positive note, but we definitely aren't complaining.
Episode: "So-Called Angels"
For a show in which basically every episode was Very Special, My So-Called Life's 1994 Christmas episode was simply devastating. When the gay character Rickie was beaten and kicked out of his house, Angela and her clueless upper-middle-class family tormented themselves over what to do about it. And what about that scene where typically aloof Jordan Catalano reached out to Rickie? Not to mention Rayanne's hilarious teen hotline phone sex scene with Brian Krakow. But the part everyone remembers is the local homeless teen girl played by '90s alt-rock icon Juliana Hatfield. I won't give away the ending here, but it's a doozy. And it involves tears.
Episode: "The Strike"
FESTIVUS: FOR THE REST-OF-US!
Now it’s your turn to weigh in: Which TV shows have had the best holiday episodes?