This wasn’t the first holiday episode of Tina Fey and Robert Carlock’s behind-the-scenes at a variety series NBC comedy, and it wasn’t the last, but what sets it apart from the others is how the show embraced the creation of a holiday variety special within the episode. In a desperate attempt to avoid his mother at the holiday, Jack (Alec Baldwin) decides to put a live Christmas special on-air — and he enlists the “TGS” staff to do it. Of course in doing so, he learns just how special his mother made his childhood celebrations, while Liz (Fey) learns her own lesson about giving when she signs up for the “Letters to Santa” program to deliver toys to underprivileged youths.
Things at the Bluth Company Christmas party go off the rails thanks to a sexual harassment speech given by Gob (Will Arnett), and Michael (Jason Bateman) and Maeby (Alia Shawkat) singing “Afternoon Delight” — a song that definitely shouldn’t be sung by an uncle and niece.
The second season of ABC’s family comedy took on two versions of the holiday season when Dre (Anthony Anderson) gets fed up with his kids only caring about the commercial side to Christmas and decides to cancel the holiday. This allows his mother (Jenifer Lewis) to swoop in and attempt to do her version, which revolves on the religious aspects, while Pops (Laurence Fishburne) tries to bring back the Christmases of Dre’s youth, when all he could afford was a bucket of fast food chicken. Ultimately, everyone hates the options, and Dre and Rainbow (Tracee Ellis Ross) cave and try to have “secret Christmas” in the walk-in closet upstairs, but nothing is truly fixed until the family all learns to see the holiday from each others’ points of view.
Though the weather outside appeared perfect for a journey through winter wonderland, in true “Black Mirror” form, there was something much darker afoot in this extended second season episode. Two men were seemingly living in a cabin, reflecting on the mistakes of their lives that led them to where they were — isolated — in the world. In truth, the cabin was a fiction, with the men (Jon Hamm’s Matt and Rafe Spall’s Joe) doomed to be trapped by various futuristic technologies.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) hopes for a quiet Christmas in this Season 3 episode, but she doesn’t get what she wants as Angel is visited by ghosts of his past —including Jenny Calendar (Robia LaMorte).
It may seem depressing to spend any holiday other than St. Patrick’s Day in a bar, but the sixth season of “Cheers” delivered a surprisingly tender take on the winter holiday season when Sam (Ted Danson) scrambled to score a last minute gift for Rebecca (Kirstie Alley) after learning everyone else had, a gaggle of Santas — one of whom was thought for a split second to be the real deal — congregate to celebrate the end of their busy season, and a turn from nay-sayer to a believer in Frasier (Kelsey Grammer).
Neither of these episodes were the first Dan Harmon’s NBC comedy tackled — that honor went to “Comparative Religion,” which revolved on the Greendale school having to be non-denominational in its storytelling — but they were the biggest and most stylized celebrations of the most magical time of year. In the second season, “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” broke the usual comedy format to tell a tale of finding the meaning of Christmas through stop-motion animation — and song. Season 3’s “Regional Holiday Music” continued the further by diving into a full musical episode as various members of the Greendale 7 recruited each other for the glee club by performing original holiday songs.
The “Doctor Who” Christmas specials have become an annual tradition, but if you’re looking for a classic one to watch, let it be “Christmas Carol.” The episode takes a spin on the classic Charles Dickens tale with the Doctor showing up to help a Spaceliner stuck in a cloud belt only to find the belt is controlled by a Scrooge-like man who is unwilling to help.
“Christmas at Downton Abbey”
The glimmer of hope that would light up the never ending spiral of tragedy that was “Downton Abbey” was the Christmas Special. Some more sinister or morbid than others, the second season offering “Christmas at Downton Abbey” offered the first real happy moment for Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) and Cousin Matthew (Dan Stevens). True “Downton” fans know this happiness would not last, but for one brief, snowy moment the two finally connected after countless, breathless episodes of hot, will-they-won’t-they elbow grazing and eye fluttering.
Outside of the beloved manor, Matthew gets on one knee and proposes to Mary, who happily accepts his offer. Meanwhile the news that sister Sybil (Jessica Brown-Findlay) is pregnant surprises the family (yet another happiness this heartless drama will eventually destroy) and Mr. Bates’ (Brendan Coyle) conviction of death is overturned to merely life in prison. It’s a Christmas miracle!
Fresh Off the Boat
“The Real Santa”
The kids of this ABC family comedy are growing up at different rates, and the second season dealt with a key milestone moment when Evan (Ian Chen) starts to question the reality of Santa. Mama bear Jessica (Constance Wu) goes more than the extra mile to keep the magic alive for her youngest cub — first by giving their neighbor (Ray Wise) pages to study up on about the version of Santa she imparted and then by donning prosthetics and a red suit herself to speak to Evan directly when he “stumbles” upon her delivering presents in the night. Additionally, though, the other two Huang kids — Eddie (Hudson Yang) and Emery (Forrest Wheeler) — banded together to try to come up with the perfect present for their mother, with each learning about the importance of preparation and just “letting it ride,” respectively, in the process.
“The One With the Holiday Armadillo”/The One With the Routine”
This NBC sitcom was perhaps best known for its Thanksgiving episodes, but it delivered quite a few quality winter holiday episodes, as well. In Season 7’s “The One With The Holiday Armadillo,” Ross (David Schwimmer) dressing up as a holiday armadillo when the costume store was all out of Santa suits turned into a modern classic because he was able to teach his young son (Dylan and Cole Sprouse) about the meaning of Hanukkah. While that episode is the easy reach when one wants to watch the Central Perk six be festive, you really can’t count out Season 6’s “The Routine,” either. A rare episode that celebrates New Year’s Eve — sort of — “The One With The Routine” sees Ross and Monica (Courteney Cox) resurrecting their childhood love of Dick Clark’s live-to-tape television event and putting a new spin on a brother-sister dance they choreographed way back when.
“Our Very First Christmas Show”
In the second season of the family comedy, the Tanners get snowed in at the airport, with middle child Stephanie (Jodie Sweetin) concerned Santa won’t be able to find her. The guys do their best to create a festive environment not only for their family but for all of the passengers stranded in the small terminal. What really sells this as a special moment, though, is the visit from Santa!
“A Christmas Story”/”We Didn’t Start the Fire”
In the third season of this ABC family comedy, the Jewish family actually did a winter story that was an homage to “A Christmas Story” when Barry (Troy Gentile) got his tongue stuck to a tetherball pole and then managed to rope his little brother Adam (Sean Giambrone) into the same predicament. In the same episode, Beverly (Wendi McLendon-Covey) was jealous of the attention Christmas was getting and prepared for “Super Hanukkah,” basically a blue and silver version of Christmas, complete with a tinsel-covered “Hanukkah bush,” “upside down Js” (candy canes), and opening all eight presents — significantly, and suspiciously, better than usual — on one night. However, the fifth season finally delivered a more proper Hanukkah episode, in which Beverly competed with Erica’s boyfriend’s family for the right to host the holiday celebration. This time they still hung blue and silver garland and stockings, but Beverly wore a light-up menorah sweater and the show dove into the very real themes of parents having a hard time letting go of family traditions when their kids are in relationships.
Even in the third season of this ABC comedy about a group of friends living in Chicago, there were still new facets of the characters for the audience to learn — and for them to learn about each other. Case in point was this holiday episode, in which it was revealed that Jane (Eliza Coupe) was actually a Christmas baby. Determined to give her a day for herself that was not overshadowed by the larger holiday, her husband (Damon Wayans Jr.), sister (Elisha Cuthbert), and friends (Zach Knighton, Adam Pally, and Casey Wilson) promised to forego anything Christmas-related. That proved to be much easier promised than delivered, though, and there were mishaps that included holiday-themed socks and ringtones to concerns over the quality of gifts to full-on egg nog related disasters. But what really clinched this as a modern classic was the tag at the end that had everyone dancing to hip-hop Santa. It should have become a tradition, but sadly this ended up being the final season of the show.
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia
“A Very Sunny Christmas”
Dennis (Glenn Howerton) and Dee (Kaitlin Olson) are determined to show Frank (Danny DeVito) the meaning of Christmas after years of suffering his holiday abuse. The highlight of the episode is Mac (Rob McElhenney) and Charlie (Charlie Day) reminiscing about their past Christmases — including Mac being taught to break into homes to steal presents and Charlie watching his mom invite a bunch of Santas/clients over.
“The Constant” isn’t just a great Christmas episode, but one of the best episodes from the entirety of “Lost’s” six season run. It may also be the most unconventional Christmas episode on this list.
After traveling from the Island to a freighter that can hopefully take him home, Desmond (Henry Ian Cusack) becomes unstuck from time and his consciousness travels between the present of 2004 and 1996. In order to save himself he needs to find a constant in both those times, and lands on the love of his life Penelope Widmore (Sonya Walger). He tracks her down in 1996 and tells her to answer her phone on Christmas Eve 2004 — the day he arrived on the freighter. Their phone call at the end of the episode is the only time the Christmas element comes in to play, but it remains one of the most moving moments from the series.
The Mindy Project
“Christmas Party Sex Trap”
The second season saw Mindy (Mindy Kaling) trying to trick Cliff (Glenn Howerton) into spending more time with her, so she threw an office-wide holiday party in order to win him over. Her plan was to sing a sexy rendition of “Santa Baby” but it was really the audience who were surprise seduced when Danny’s (Chris Messina) Secret Santa gift for Mindy turned out to be a dance routine set to Aaliyah’s “Try Again,” a song Mindy used to play all the time but which annoyed Danny. Although their relationship would later go through many ups and downs, his willingness to embrace something she loved to make her smile showed they had endgame potential.
In true UK series form, the final episode of the second season was used as a holiday special. The titular Miranda (Miranda Hart) just can’t take the holiday cheer anymore — mostly because her parents’ oddities embarrass her — and decides to escape familial obligations to spend the holiday with friends in her flat instead. Of course, nothing goes according to plan — including a hilarious chain of events regarding a missed delivery of a key gift — but that just speaks to the true meaning of the season even greater.
“The Best Chrismukkah Ever”
You really can’t go wrong with any of “The O.C.’s” Chrismukkah episodes, but the original takes the cake. It included an extravagant party the show had become known for, Summer (Rachel Bilson) and Anna (Samaire Armstrong) giving their presents to Seth (Adam Brody), drunk Marissa (Mischa Barton) —shocker —and more.
“Classy Christmas”/”Dwight Christmas”
“The Office” had some legendary Christmas episodes but “Classy Christmas” and “Dwight Christmas” rank at the top. “Dwight Christmas” is especially fun as it’s one of the few post-Steve Carrell episodes that really nailed it.
The office gives Dwight (Rainn Wilson) permission to celebrate the holidays his way, which included odd food choices and music as well as a visit from Belsnickel, a crotchety Santa-like character that deems whether the employees were “impish or admirable” that year.
Parks and Recreation
It doesn’t seem like Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) can have a happy holiday given that she’s been temporarily stripped of her government employee badge (and rights), but her intrepid team not only bands together to make her a gingerbread and candy replica of the office — her true home — but also promise to step up in their support for Leslie’s city council campaign. It’s the first step in what truly launches her political career.
This late series episode introduced Festivus — a fake holiday created by George’s father Frank (Jerry Stiller) — to the world. It’s a holiday for those who are tired of the commercialization of other celebrations. The holiday includes “airing of the grievances” and “feats of strengths” among their traditions.
“The Abominable Bride”
Okay, so it’s not exactly a Christmas episode — it did air shortly after the new year — but what’s more indicative of the holidays than a snow-covered Victorian England? In “The Abominable Bride,” we find Sherlock (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Watson (Martin Freeman) back in the 19th century, trying to crack the case of a bride who supposedly killed herself, but returned from the grave to kill her groom. Without spoiling too much, the case draws parallels to Sherlock’s current-day troubles, including the mystery of Moriarty’s return, and, along with being one of the most shocking episodes, is also one that spurs the most character development. Considered one of the best installments of “Sherlock,” the mystery should keep you hooked… even during a post-Christmas feast food coma.
“Mr. Hankey, the Christmas Poo”
Upset that he’s missing out on Christmas, Kyle is visited by Mr. Hankey, a talking and singing poo, who comforts him. Meanwhile, the rest of the town is busy removing all Christmas decorations in an attempt to be more politically correct.
“A Very Supernatural Christmas”
In the third season of the CW’s demon-hunting drama, brothers Dean (Jensen Ackles) and Sam (Jared Padalecki) were faced with Dean’s impending death, thanks to a deal he made to bring Sam back from the dead at the end of the second season. This rare holiday episode saw flashbacks to their non-traditional Christmases of the past, when they were on the road with their dad (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), and explained where the infamous Samulet came from. Despite being pulled into a case that at first appeared to involve Krampus but was actually centered on pagan gods using holiday wreaths to mark people for sacrifice, the Winchesters actually celebrated a makeshift version of the holidays again themselves — for the first time in years, and at the time, seemingly for the last time.
“Twas the Night Before Christmas…or Twas It?”
This ABC family comedy was only around for one season but thankfully in that season co-creators Sarah Haskins and Emily Halperin knew the importance of showcasing the family at their holiday best — and worst. One of the kids accidentally spiked a traditional drink made by Kate (Malin Akerman), which led to a night of debauchery for the adults that included wrecking the Christmas tree, bringing in a feral coyote as a new pet, and bonding over singing Ace of Base.
The West Wing
“In Excelsis Deo”
After a homeless veteran winds up dead on the National Mall in a coat that Toby (Richard Schiff) had donated, he becomes obsessed with getting the man a proper burial. The episodes final scene with Toby and Mrs. Landingham (Kathryn Joosten) attending the vet’s funeral while the rest of the staff views a choir perform “Little Drummer Boy” is one of the best in the show’s first season.
Will & Grace
“Jingle Balls”/”A Little Christmas Queer”
The NBC sitcom was always inclusive for its depiction of a male-female friendship in which one party (Debra Messing’s Grace) was straight and one was gay (Eric McCormack’s Will), but also because one party (Grace) was Jewish and one Christian (Will). This meant the show leaned into the holiday season in many different ways. Some of the strongest were Season 4’s “Jingle Balls,” which took on the New York City traditional of department store window decorations when Grace did the job for Jack (Sean Hayes), who thought it was actually Santa who helped him, as well as Season 8’s “A Little Christmas Queer” that saw Will confronting his mother over how she was embracing her nephew’s Christmas shows despite not supporting Will’s own versions when he was a boy.
“How the Ghost Stole Christmas”
Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson) investigate a house that is haunted by a couple every Christmas Eve. Ed Asner and Lily Tomlin guest star as the ghostly couple who play mind games on the FBI agents, trying to get them to kill each other. Eventually, they see through the illusions to escape with just enough time left to exchange gifts.