12 Days of TV Christmas

One of the many joys of the Christmas season is seeing the many Christmas themed episodes of your favorite TV shows. It’s always fun to see how a show will tackle their celebration of such a ubiquitous holiday, and still maintain their signature style of charm, humor, and characterization within the framework of a holiday that basically every show has an episode for. Of the dozens that I’ve watched over this past month, these were the 12 that I found to be the most enjoyable, the ones that gave me the Christmas feels, and the ones that I have and will continue to visit every year.

12. “Jingle Jingle Jangle” Ed, Edd n’ Eddy

For a show as mean-spirited and cynical as Ed, Edd, n’ Eddy, it only makes sense that its Christmas episode, normally a time for heartwarming, wholesome stories of giving, would be just as rotten and underhanded as usual. When Eddy snoops through his stash of Christmas presents and hates what he finds, he plans to scam all the neighborhood kids into giving their presents to him. The lengths that Eddy goes to try to swindle the other kids are no more extreme than any other episode, but come across as excessively cruel given the Christmas season. The funniest moments are when freak of nature Ed bulldozes through his house, carrying a chimney to set up for Santa, and when Eddy learns the true meaning of Christmas by crossing the lowest bar possible for selfless giving, which only reinforces the hilarity of Ed, Edd, n’ Eddy’s anti-morals, especially during Christmas.

11. “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire”, The Simpsons

The first official episode of The Simpsons just so happens to be a Christmas episode, and one that establishes a significant piece of Simpsons history that tends to get forgotten about. While not the world’s first introduction to The Simpsons, having already been established as an animated segment on The Tracy Ulman Show, this was their first foray into proving their worth as a series on their own. As is with most of the first season of The Simpsons, the animation is pretty stiff and a lot of the characters’ personalities are not as well-defined as they would eventually become, but the familial relationships established here are strong enough that it’s understandable why they became the most enduring family on television. In a pretty standard Christmas episode plot, Homer takes up a part-time job as a mall Santa to make some extra money for the holidays. He eventually blows all the money betting on a race dog who he then decides to adopt and bring home as his Christmas gift to the family. The show has been running for so long, and he’s been such a ubiquitous member of the show, it’s sometimes easy to take for granted that the origins of Santa’s Little Helper come from such heartfelt and simple beginnings.

10. “The Santa Experience”, Rugrats

More than any of this show’s Christmas episodes, Rugrats has become more celebrated for its Hanukkah special, by virtue of being a children’s show that provides representation of Jewish holidays, and while that is a significant milestone, the nature of this list is specifically highlighting Christmas episodes, and “The Santa Experience” is a cozy, nostalgic Christmas watch. In an effort to restore a sense of Christmas spirit after Angelica rips the beard off of a mall Santa, the families decide to rent out a cabin for a Christmas getaway. Rugrats is all about the naivety and simplicity of early childhood, and nothing feels grander or more monumental at that age than Christmas, and it manages to tap into that childlike excitement, even for older viewers who are still young at heart.

9. “Woodland Critter Christmas”, South Park

With its origins being rooted in a Christmas special, South Park has always pushed the boundaries of acceptability for its Christmas episodes, as it does for every episode, which can vary from being brilliantly subversive to regrettably tasteless in ways that will not be looked back on fondly in years to come. While there are many Christmas episodes to choose from, including the original “Spirit of Christmas” shorts that served as the semi-pilot for South Park, and the numerous Mr. Hankey the Christmas Poo specials, “Woodland Critter Christmas” is still the most uproarious and undeniably hilarious Christmas show they’ve done, and one of the best of the entire series. Narrated in rhyme by an unidentified narrator, a group of woodland critters enlist the help of Stan to help them prepare for the virgin birth of their savior on Christmas Eve. What Stan doesn’t realize is that these woodland critters are satanic cultists and their savior is the Anti-Christ. With no time left to waste, Stan recruits three baby mountain lion cubs to perform an abortion on the mother critter. Yes, this is the wackiest and most demented plot for a Christmas episode, especially on this list. The outrageous extremes of this episode’s subject matter are shocking and offensive in ways that are still joyous and fun without crossing over into the territory of being mean-spirited or vindictive in ways that South Park can often come across when it’s trying to hard to cross a line.

8. “How Lily Stole Christmas”, How I Met Your Mother

After leaving Marshall in the season 1 finale, Lily and Marshall have reconciled and are preparing to celebrate Christmas together. That is until she hears an old message on their answering machine of Ted calling her a “grinch”, but he didn’t say “grinch”. In typical “grinch” fashion, Lily takes all of the Christmas decorations from the apartment, forcing Ted to hunt her down and apologize. The episode makes great use of that wordplay in clever ways, including one moment where Ted, upon realizing she has stolen all the decorations, calls her a grinch and his narration says “That time I actually did say ‘grinch'”. Meanwhile, Marshall is on his own adventure to track down Lily’s gift from the post office, and gets wrapped up in delivering the rest of the packages on the mail truck’s route, in a fun subversion of the “having to deliver all the presents” trope. There is a lot of story built up from over the past half season to catch you up to speed, so it may not be entirely accessible for someone who hasn’t been following the show chronologically up to that point, but it’s a rewarding treat to return back to for fans.

7. “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas”, Community

Community was always a show that pushed creative boundaries as far as what was humanly possible for network sitcoms, with several musical episodes, action movie parodies, and most impressively, the season 2 Christmas episode, “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” done entirely in stop-motion. When Abed starts seeing life as a stop-motion Christmas special, the rest of the gang tries to break him from his delusion by indulging him on his magical Christmas adventure. The commitment to doing an entire episode in stop-motion is not only creatively innovative for a live-action sitcom, and requires a lot of artistic dedication and effort, but it also serves the thematic relevance of the episode’s story and isn’t just a neat gimmick. On top of the unique art style, the episode also has a surprisingly sincere holiday sentiment for a show as snarky and ironic as Community, that the true meaning of Christmas is whatever it means to you, because Christmas doesn’t have any singular inherent meaning.

6. “The Toaster”, Everybody Loves Raymond

There’s no sitcom that consistently nails the yearly Thanksgiving and Christmas episode like Everybody Loves Raymond. This show represents the honest struggles of spending the holidays with your family in the most accurate and relatable ways that a sitcom could be expected to. Mostly because a majority of the stories for episodes are taken from the real-life experiences of Ray Romano, or one of the show’s writers, including “The Toaster”. Series creator Phil Rosenthal bought everyone in his family a toaster with “Everybody Loves Raymond” engraved on it for Christmas one year, just as Raymond does in this episode. Everyone seemed to love the gift, but he doesn’t hear back from his parents. He comes to find out that his parents returned the gift without opening it and seeing what was inside. They then try to go back to the store, look through the boxes and find their personalized toaster. According to Rosenthal, the exchanges between Ray and his parents in this episode are almost verbatim the confrontations he had with his parents when he found out about what they had done with his gift. It’s not only hilarious because of how true to life it is, but also because this type of behavior is emblematic of who Raymond’s parents are and how they react to gifts from their son, tracing back to the very first episode of the show with the “Fruit of the Month Club” fiasco, which also happens to be a true story from the life of Phil Rosenthal.

5. “Elmo Saves Christmas”, Sesame Street

Not the last instance of Muppet related Christmas wonder to show up in this countdown, but certainly the most nostalgic. After Elmo rescues Santa from being stuck in his chimney, Santa gives him a magic snow globe that grants him three wishes, which he uses to wish that it was Christmas every day. Santa then sends Elmo on a journey into the future to show him what the world would really be like if it were Christmas every day, and to be quite honest, it looks almost identical to if he wished that it was COVID-19 quarantine every day. Businesses are closed, everyone stays home, friends can’t be together in person (Big Bird and Snuffleupagus are separated for the holiday), and everyone just wants life to go back to normal. Unsurprising for Sesame Street, this special has some pretty significant guest stars including Harvey Fierstein as the Easter Bunny, and shockingly enough, a framing device that has Maya Angelou telling the story to a group of other Muppets and children. It’s filled with songs (not all of them great, Santa has a pretty boring song that gets reprised later by Elmo), clever meta humor (there’s a great moment where Bert & Ernie walk past a TV playing It’s a Wonderful Life during a scene where George calls out to his friends, coincidentally named Bert & Ernie, and the two confused Muppets stop dead in their tracks and look at each other), and a warm, fuzzy, innocence that reminds us of the childlike magic of Christmas.

4. “The Strike”, Seinfeld

It’s a Festivus for the rest of us with the Seinfeld gang. It only makes sense that one of the most revolutionary sitcoms of all time would have one of the most revolutionary Christmas episodes, to the point where it’s even spawned a new holiday that hardcore fans would actually celebrate. As a rebellion against Christmas, George’s father invents a new holiday called Festivus, with traditions that include “the airing of grievances”, “feats of strength”, and a metal pole instead of a tree. George also gets involved in giving out donations to a non-existent charity known as The Human Fund, as Christmas gifts to his office co-workers. The other characters’ subplots aren’t really Christmas related and could be the subplots of any Seinfeld episode such as Jerry dating a “two face” girl, Elaine trying to get back the card from a guy she gave her number to, and Kramer getting his job back at a bagel shop after being on strike for 12 years, then immediately striking when he’s not given off from work to celebrate Festivus. It’s a testament to the “feats of strength” of Seinfeld’s writing that even in its ninth and final season, it was still able to churn out fresh and innovative ideas that would remain one of the defining touchstones of the show’s legacy. It also serves as a fantastic piece of counter-Christmas entertainment for anyone who’s tired of the traditional Christmas episodes or movies.

3. “Christmas Who?”, SpongeBob SquarePants

This should come as an obvious pick given who’s writing this list. It’s not Christmas without the Sponge in this house. This episode is the first instance of Tom Kenny as Patchy the Pirate, which sets a festive holiday tone as Patchy and his annoying puppet parrot sidekick prepare for Christmas by baking cookies, reading children’s fan letters, and serving as the narrator for the story of Bikini Bottom’s very first Christmas. When Sandy tells SpongeBob all about the wonders of the Christmas holiday, SpongeBob decides to spread the holiday cheer to the entire town. He has everyone write letters to Santa, decorates the town, and gets everyone on board for the holiday spirit, except of course, for Squidward. After Christmas Eve passes and Santa never shows up, the entire town turns on SpongeBob for selling them a bunch of lies. Squidward feels guilty so he decides to pretend to be Santa and give away all of his possessions as Christmas gifts to the townspeople. It’s a rare instance in which Squidward acts selflessly just to make SpongeBob happy and reinforces the giving nature of Christmas, even to these ridiculous extremes. The episode ends with one of the most bizarre depictions of Santa Claus as he flies over Bikini Bottom in a maniacal, borderline demented laughing fit, which is always a hilarious note to end on, even after seeing it so many times. SpongeBob’s brand of incessant optimism is exactly the type of kind-hearted Christmas spirit that makes this a holiday staple for any 90s-2000s kid. 

2. “A Muppet Family Christmas”, The Muppets 

Before The Avengers, the peak of pop culture crossover events came in the form of Jim Henson’s “A Muppet Family Christmas”. The Muppets drive up to Fozzie’s mother’s house to celebrate A Muppets Family Christmas with the Sesame Street and Fraggle Rock gangs, where they make new friends, sing Christmas songs, make self-aware jokes, and enjoy the holiday together. The only real source of conflict comes in the form of a severe blizzard, which has Kermit worried that Miss Piggy won’t be able to make it through. Once she finally does, the special just becomes a joyous party full of Christmas carols and family fun. It’s such a warm and inviting Christmas celebration, almost giving you, as the viewer, the feeling that you are a welcome member of the Muppet’s family at Christmas. Topping off this hour of wholesome family entertainment, the special ends with Jim Henson himself looking on at his Muppet family as he says “They look like they’re having a good time. I like it when they have a good time.” A beautifully, heartwarming, sentiment that could bring a tear to the eyes of any Henson fan. 

  1. “Arnold’s Christmas”, Hey Arnold!

There’s no Christmas episode that manages to tap into the magic, wonder, and true heart of the Christmas spirit like “Arnold’s Christmas”, and it does it in the most grounded, human way possible. Arnold has to find the perfect gift for his neighbor Mr. Hyunh, who always seems so lonely and depressed around the holidays. He learns that Mr. Hyunh was separated from his daughter during the Vietnam War when they had to flee the country. Arnold makes it his Christmas mission to find her and reunite them. The bold and mature storytelling decisions to tackle the realities that refugee families from their war-torn countries is far above and beyond the ambitions or capabilities of most children’s cartoons, especially for a Christmas episode which are normally fantastical and candy-colored. The melancholic snowy setting of the city at Christmastime is closer to the look of Christmas in our world than any cartoon has ever portrayed. Arnold’s naturally caring and selfless nature is what the heart of the show has always been about, and his determination and altruistic motivations in this episode are what the purity of Christmas giving is meant to be about. The final moments when Mr. Hyunh is reunited with his daughter are some of the most powerfully overwhelming emotional moments of not only just any Christmas special, but of any episode of television there is.

Merry Christmas from the RMR community!

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