We’ve all seen the rankings of the beloved Friends Thanksgiving episodes — for the record, the best one is “The One With All the Thanksgivings,” in which we see how Chandler met Monica and Joey put a turkey on his head — but the show had some memorable Christmas episodes, too.
Of course, nearly every sitcom and drama, from I Love Lucy to South Park to This Is Us, has holiday episodes. Some are great (Everybody Loves Raymond’s), while some make your teeth ache because they’re so sugary and fake and they take you out of the show’s world and make you vow never to watch that episode again. But what makes the Friends Christmas episodes stand out are the same things that make every Friends episode stand out: a great cast, superior writing, genuine humor, and serious moments. The show had a gravitas — a smart, likable, solid quality that couldn’t be matched by all the Friends clones that came later or, indeed, that most sitcoms period couldn’t attain.
So in the spirit of the season, we’re ranking all ten Friends Christmas episodes from the show’s ten-season run. Season seven had two Christmas episodes, but the last season didn’t have any because the show was on hiatus until January of the following year. In other words … they were on a break!
All ten seasons of Friends are now streaming on HBO Max.
10. “The One With Ross’s Step Forward” (Season 8, Episode 11)
While the plot concerning Ross freaking out because Mona wants to do a joint Christmas card is funny and relatable (Chandler hanging out with his sleazy boss, not so much), “The One With Ross’s Step Forward” gets the bottom spot because it marks the beginning of what is not only the worst story arc in Friends history but possibly the worst story arc in television history. Worse than the Nikki and Paolo episodes of Lost, worse than the last two seasons of Sleepy Hollow, worse than whatever the hell happened to Toby in the last season of The West Wing.
Yes, I’m talking about Joey and Rachel becoming a couple. This is the episode that first hints at that insane plot and … you know what? Just thinking about it makes me angry enough to kick a puppy, so I’ll stop there.
9. The One With All the Candy” (Season 7, Episode 9)
Although the plot of Ross buying Phoebe the bike she never had as a kid is undeniably sweet, the rest of this episode seems like a rehash of the No. 1 episode on this list, only replacing homemade cookies with homemade candy. It’s rather mundane and almost completely unfunny.
Is this even a Christmas episode? Well, Monica does have a tree.
8. “The One With Christmas in Tulsa” (Season 9, Episode 10)
“The One With Christmas in Tulsa” could have been one of the better Friends Christmas episodes, but any episode filled with clips from earlier episodes automatically gets ranked relatively low. It does redeem itself a bit by having a working-on-Christmas Chandler quit his job and come back to New York to spend the holidays with his friends, instead of sharing the ham with a hot co-worker in the Tulsa office. (That’s not a euphemism, there was an actual baked ham there.) The episode ends on a nice, cozy, Christmassy note with the gang all together and the snow falling softly outside the window.
7. “The One With the Monkey” (Season 1, Episode 10)
Here’s the show’s second-worst story arc: Ross getting that damn pet monkey, Marcel. Luckily, it came very early in the series and was dropped after a handful of episodes (David Schwimmer hated working with him). It’s crazy how Chandler and Joey getting a chick and a duck worked flawlessly and lasted for most of the show’s run, but the monkey didn’t work at all and became annoying almost instantly. I guess monkeys aren’t the funniest animal after all.
“The One With the Monkey” is more of a New Year’s Eve episode, as the gang wonder what to do when the ball drops and decide to make a “no-date” pact. It’s one of those TV episodes you have to consider a Christmas episode because there are garlands and fake snow on the set.
6. “The One With the Routine” (Season 6, Episode 10)
“The One With the Routine” is also more of a New Year’s Eve episode, as Monica, Ross, and Joey tag along with Janice to be background dancers on Dick Clark’s Rockin’ New Year’s Eve (or, as the Australian Janice calls it, Dickin’ Rockin’ Dickie Eve), even if there is a subplot in which the rest of the gang looks for the Christmas gifts Monica has hidden.
Two things about that subplot: One, Rachel looks in the closet near the window, something that in a later episode has supposedly been locked shut since the start of the show. And two, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with Chandler’s A-to-Z bookends! I’d also like to point out that Monica — even though she’s a control freak and high maintenance — is absolutely right when she turns the tree around to hide the hideous decorating job that Chandler, Joey, and Rachel have done.
Of course, the highlight of the episode is Ross and Monica’s dance routine. If two people actually did this on a real-life New Year’s Eve TV show today, the clip would immediately go viral and everyone would be making fun of them on social media with snarky commentary and embarrassing GIFs and a hashtag: #newyearscrazydance.
(A side note: It’s amazing what gets cut out for the syndicated repeats that air on TV every day — for time and to fit in more commercials on channels like TV Land and TBS. For example, this episode has a scene in which Rachel, Phoebe, and Chandler go to Central Perk and Rachel flirts with Gunther to see if he knows where Monica’s gifts are hidden, but it’s never shown in reruns. I don’t think I’ve seen that segment since it first aired on NBC in 1999.)
5. “The One With the Inappropriate Sister” (Season 5, Episode 10)
I don’t know if you’re the type of person who considers incest a festive topic — maybe we need a new holiday word, incestive — but that’s pretty much the main plot of this episode. Rachel’s new boyfriend, Danny, who up till now has presented as a normal guy who would fit in naturally with the Central Perk gang, seems to have, well, too close a relationship with his sister.
Over at Joey and Chandler and Ross’s (they’re all living together by this episode; Ross isn’t unemployed, he’s “on sabbatical”), Ross helps Joey write a script, which angers Chandler, who thinks Ross is being too overbearing and serious.
But the Christmas part of the episode is pretty funny, as Phoebe rings the bell to collect money for the Salvation Army in front of Macy’s (the prime spot!) and has to deal with drunks and people throwing trash in the kettle. It’s good to see Phoebe’s nasty side — or, as she calls it, “Street Phoebe” — come out once in a while. I’m pretty sure Phoebe has killed someone.
4. “The One With the Holiday Armadillo” (Season 7, Episode 10)
“The One With the Holiday Armadillo” also serves as a Hanukkah episode, as Ross attempts to teach his Christmas-loving son, Ben, about the Festival of Lights. The store is out of Santa suits, so Ross rents an armadillo outfit instead. This is also the episode where Chandler takes Monica to a fancy restaurant and has a helluva time trying to slip money to the maître d’ so they can get a table. Meanwhile, the repairs on Phoebe and Rachel’s apartment are done, and Phoebe tries to get Rachel to leave Joey’s place to come back and live with her. She gives Joey annoying presents, from a noisy drum set to a tarantula, which Rachel actually loves because she used to have one when she was a kid — until the cat ate it and died.
This one gets extra points just for Matthew Perry’s line reading of “What are you doing here … weird … turtle … man?!?”
3. “The One With the Girl From Poughkeepsie” (Season 4, Episode 10)
“The One With the Girl From Poughkeepsie” isn’t filled with the most Christmas cheer, but it includes Phoebe’s holiday song about the gang (“Please tell Joey / Christmas will be snowwwwwwwwwy”), which ranks it up a few notches. Joey gets a job at Monica’s restaurant just so she can fire him and look tough in front of the employees who hate her, and Chandler sets Rachel up with one of his co-workers (she has sex with him on their first date and is worried he got the wrong idea about her). But my favorite plot involves Ross, who is dating two women at once (someone should write a thesis on how Ross keeps charming all these women). One of them lives uptown, the other lives two hours away, and he’s getting exhausted seeing them. Should he keep seeing both? Or just see the girl who lives close by, because, well, she lives so close by?
A memorable line from Ross: “Well, I want to give her another chance, ya know? She lives so close. And at the end of the date, she said something that was, if she was kidding, was really funny. On the other hand, if she wasn’t kidding, she’s not fun; she’s stupid and kind of a racist.”
2. “The One Where Rachel Quits” (Season 3, Episode 10)
After Gunther tells Rachel she has to be trained again even though she has been working at Central Perk for a while (she’s not very good), Joey and Chandler convince her to quit. Of course, when the only job you’ve ever had is “waitress,” it doesn’t make for a stellar résumé, even if you use the largest font possible. Meanwhile, Ross accidentally breaks the leg of a Girl Scout (sorry, Brown Bird) and helps her sell cookies door to door so she can win a trip to space camp. (By the way, the little girl is played by Mae Whitman.)
This is also the episode where Joey has a job selling Christmas trees; this freaks out Phoebe because she finds it sad that the old trees are either thrown away or put into a wood chipper. The gang saves the day in the end by taking all the old Christmas trees and surprising Phoebe with them in Monica’s apartment. This just exemplifies how much time everyone spends in Monica’s apartment, because shouldn’t they have put them in Phoebe’s apartment instead?
I’ve always wondered what happened to those trees after Christmas. Did Phoebe get bummed out again because they were thrown out a second time? They’re not seen in the next episode, “The One Where Chandler Can’t Remember Which Sister.”
1. “The One With Phoebe’s Dad” (Season 2, Episode 9)
Phoebe finally finds out from her grandmother that the father who ran out on her family isn’t actually a famous tree surgeon in Burma but a pharmacist in upstate New York. She decides to go and confront him during Christmas and is accompanied by Joey and Chandler. The trip takes so much time that the guys don’t have a chance to do any shopping, so they buy the gang some things at a gas station on the way back, including cans of soda, toilet-seat protectors, and condoms. (This is the episode after the one where Rachel gets mad at Ross for making a list comparing her to Julie, so things are still tense between them. She refuses his Slinky gift, so he gives it to Gunther.)
Meanwhile, Monica and Rachel’s Christmas party turns into a tropical-themed get-together when Ross accidentally breaks the radiator knob and the super, Mr. Treeger, can’t get a new one until after the holiday. Of course, they completely misunderstand this and think Mr. Treeger isn’t helping them because they only gave him cookies as a Christmas gift, not money. This is the type of situation that can happen only on a sitcom, because if it didn’t, you couldn’t have an episode. You mean to tell me no one at the party could figure it out?
The secret to this episode’s success? Nat King Cole’s “The Christmas Song,” playing while Joey and Chandler talk to Phoebe in the cab about her dad. It automatically puts you in the Christmas mood and nudges “The One With Phoebe’s Dad” into the top spot.