Having a break over the holidays is the perfect time for a lot of things: Seeing your family, catching up with friends, eating a ton, reflecting … but most important of all, it’s a great time to watch a lot of TV — specifically, Christmas episodes.
Christmas episodes are a timeless tradition; they enable us to spend holidays with the characters we’ve come to love, but most importantly of all, it’s a chance to use the darker underpinnings of a season scored by family fights, heartbreak, and tensions rising to the surface to create drama and tie up narrative threads. But don’t worry too much: Christmas episodes tend to finish with the characters united as one, ready to face another year of drama.
Christmas episodes often showcase a show’s strength and see the characters at their best; this time of year is a good time to reflect and wind down with some of the greatest Christmas TV episodes of all time. Here, we’ve compiled a list of some of the best and just why they were chosen, so sit back, relax, and let the holiday cheer take you. (And if all you really want for Christmas are episodes of The Office, we’ve got your back for that as well.)
“The Chrismukk-huh?” The O.C. season 4
In the tradition of holiday episodes, Hanukkah specials are few and far between. But with Chrismukkah, The O.C.’s mash-up holiday of Christmas and Hanukkah, we have the next best thing. The holiday was a cultural sensation, and it all started with Seth Cohen waving a menorah and a candy cane in Ryan Atwood’s face and telling him he didn’t have to choose. There are four Chrismukkah episodes, but this one is special: It enters pretty wacky territory in the midst of a season full of self-referential, off-the-wall comedy, with Taylor and Ryan suffering head injuries in the middle of an argument and being thrown into a parallel universe, entering real soap-opera territory. Ryan sees a parallel universe where he never ended up in Orange County and Marissa dies in Tijuana, and in the real world, they’re in a coma while the families try to wake them and get Taylor’s insensitive mom to visit. Taylor awakes with a revelation that she needs to confront her mom, while Ryan awakes with the realization that there’s nothing he could have done to help Marissa. All is well, and some narrative difficulties are neatly wrapped up. Streaming on Hulu.
“Amends,” Buffy the Vampire Slayer season 3
Some Christmas episodes are wholesome and see the characters united. Some, not so much. In “Amends,” Angel is haunted by dreams of the people he murdered when he was Angelus. Visions of his victims, like Jenny Calendar, appear and try to get him to kill Buffy. Elsewhere, Oz, Willow, Cordelia, and Xander sort through their love … square … but the real drama is, naturally, between Angel and Buffy. Angel decides to kill himself to escape the First Evil’s torture by waiting for the sun to come up, but Buffy tries to stop him — in a Christmas miracle, the heatwave ends, and snow starts to fall. Angel lives, and the pair take a Christmas Day wander through Sunnydale. Streaming on Hulu.
“Santa’s Secret Stuff,” Gilmore Girls season 7
What’s Christmas without a few family secrets coming to the surface? In “Santa’s Secret Stuff,” Luke asks Lorelai to write a character recommendation letter to help in his custody battle over April, which she does after remembering how pivotal he has been in Rory’s life. She keeps it a secret from Christopher, and elsewhere, Rory is atoning for her own secrets by writing a letter to her friend explaining why she kept her friendship with her boyfriend quiet. But all that doesn’t put a damper on the celebrations — Rory and Lorelai still manage to go all-out to decorate trees, do all their shopping, and bake Christmas cookies. If we can learn anything from the Gilmore girls this Christmas, it’s to make all occasions as extra as possible, no matter what. Streaming on Netflix.
“The Lonely Island Wear Holiday Sweaters & White Pants,” Comedy Bang! Bang! season 3
It was always Comedy Bang! Bang!’s M.O. to take a theme and just run wild with it, but with this holiday special, Scott Aukerman took it even further than usual. With the Lonely Island as guests, the air-conditioning in the studio breaks and the show is taken over by terrorists requesting a hard-to-cop type of doll to give their kids for Christmas. What follows is a Die Hard--style jape that, spoiler, ends in the entire Lonely Island being shot and killed. Still, it’s a happy ending for some, as the terrorists get their dolls, and the “fixing” of the AC ends in a ton of fake snow falling on the studio. Streaming on Netflix.
“The Strike,” Seinfeld season 9
Made-up holidays that become a big deal didn’t start with The O.C.’s Chrismukkah. They possibly did start with Seinfeld’s infamous Festivus, which first appears in “The Strike.” The episode opens with a Hanukkah party and continues with all the usual Seinfeldisms — shallowness and selfishness, namely — but there’s no repentance to be seen here. Instead, George tries to get the day off for Festivus, a holiday his father invented and which they celebrate instead of Christmas, with traditions including a Festivus pole, an airing of grievances, and feats of strength. The gang all attend a Festivus dinner at the Costanzas, united at last, and the holiday became a cultural hit, being adopted at large as an alternative to the capitalism of Christmas. Streaming on Hulu.
“A Very Sunny Christmas,” It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia season 6
It just wouldn’t be a Sunny Christmas without blood, swearing, and so much screaming. In this hour-long two-part Christmas special, our friends at Paddy’s Pub go through a roller coaster of emotions and revelations: Frank buys Dee’s and Dennis’s dream gifts for himself, so they embark on a Christmas Carol scheme to get him back, Mac discovers that he used to rob innocent families on Christmas Day, and Charlie bites a Santa and screams, “Did you fuck my mom, Santa Claus?” after discovering his mom used to sleep with men dressed as Santa. After making up, Frank buys them all gifts, but they all get stolen. It’s a happy ending, though, as the gang make up and throw rocks at trains. This episode showcases the best and worst of the Sunny gang, as all holiday episodes should do. Streaming on Hulu.
“Boom Crunch,” Desperate Housewives season 6
If holiday episodes are a chance to take the drama of a show to the next level and tie up loose ends, Desperate Housewives really went there. Everyone’s various infidelities and fights reach boiling point, with Karl and Orson coming to blows at the Christmas block party, Dylan discovering her mother has been lying to her, and Lynette attempting to apologize to Gaby and Carlos for suing them. Of course, that isn’t enough: a plane crashes into Wisteria Lane, which Lynette saves Gaby’s child from the path of, fixing their feud. It also hits Mona, who has been blackmailing the Bolens. It then crashes into Santa’s workshop, with Bree, Karl, and Orson inside, as we learn later, killing Karl and disabling Orson. Merry Christmas? Streaming on Hulu.
“Ludachristmas,” 30 Rock season 2
30 Rock has a few Christmas episodes, but perhaps the most enjoyable, and relatable, one is “Ludachristmas.” In it, Jack’s mother meets the Lemon family and instantly dislikes them because of their happiness, so she sets out to show that they maybe aren’t all that perfect. She orchestrates an argument between the family, which brings joy to both her and Jack. Tracy has been less than truthful, too, as he’s been drinking despite wearing an ankle monitor intended to prevent him from it. The real fun, though, comes when Kenneth cancels the cast and writers’ Ludachristmas party to teach them the true meaning of Christmas, and they tear down the giant Christmas tree outside 30 Rock. The message of the episode? Everyone’s family is fucked up in their own way. Streaming on Hulu.
“Afternoon Delight,” Arrested Development season 2
Christmas is a time for families to spend time together — of course, this often turns out more difficult than we expect. After the banana stand is vandalized by teenagers, Michael seeks George Michael’s help, but when he is busy, Michael panics that his son is pulling away from him. Maeby, lonely without her mom, helps Michael, and they sing “Afternoon Delight” on karaoke at the office Christmas party together, not realizing at first that it isn’t all that innocent. More misunderstandings ensue: Oscar believes that “Afternoon Delight” is a strain of weed, so puts it in Lucille’s brownie, leading her to crash into the banana stand. Lindsay and George Michael decide to perform the song together, but realize it’s a sexy song, too. Christmas episodes are a chance for shows to showcase their strengths, and these back-and-forth misunderstandings are peak Arrested Development. Streaming on Netflix.
“Roman Holiday,” Gossip Girl season 1
In this season-one episode of Gossip Girl, Blair has a difficult holiday when her father comes home with his boyfriend, and she hatches a plan to get rid of him. Meanwhile, she panics that Chuck is going to tell Nate about their hookup. It’s not all trouble, though, as Blair accepts Roman into her life, and when her father’s flight is canceled, they have a whole Waldorf Christmas. Meanwhile, Dan sneaks a tree into Serena’s suite, she creates a Winter Wonderland for him and gives him a love letter, and everyone is pretty happy … until Chuck teases that he’s going to tell Nate about the hookup right at the end, because what Gossip Girl episode is truly complete without life-ruining drama? Streaming on Netflix.
“The Real Santa,” Fresh Off the Boat season 2
While Jessica loves the holidays, she, naturally, can’t leave well enough alone and feels like Santa needs some improvements. She convinces Evan that Santa Claus is a Chinese man and a scientist in an attempt to make him embrace his cultural heritage, so Evan decides he wants to ask Santa physics questions. Panicking, Jessica attempts to find a suitable Santa. In the end, Jessica dresses up as Lǎo Bǎn Santa to deliver their presents, convincing Evan that Santa is Chinese after all, and a woman because “you think a man is thoughtful enough to give presents to everyone in the world?” It’s a funny, original take on an old story, and ends up as a heartwarming insight into just how far Jessica will go for her kids. Streaming on Hulu.
“How the Ghosts Stole Christmas,” The X-Files season 6
When Scully gets a call from Mulder dragging her to investigate a house haunted by a couple who went through with a suicide pact at Christmas, she tries to get it over with quickly — until they find two corpses that look the same as them. After the agents are separated, the ghosts turn them against each other, tricking them into believing that they have shot one another. After Mulder realizes this isn’t possible, the illusion is broken, and the two manage to leave — the mystery is unsolved, but the ghosts sit by the fire, and Mulder and Scully go home to exchange presents, even though they said they would not. It has all the makings of a great X-Files episode — camaraderie and low-key flirting between the agents, unresolved mysteries, and genuine terror, all wrapped up with a nice Christmas bow. Streaming on Hulu.
“Santa,” New Girl season 2
This New Girl episode opens with the gang discussing how they first found out the truth about Santa Claus, with Schmidt revealing that he was on very strict instructions not to say a word “until the last Christian kid found out.” Throughout the episode the gang attend several Christmas (or as Schmidt calls it, White Anglo-Saxon Winter Privilege Night) parties and learn to reconcile, as is in the spirit of Christmas: Nick makes up with new girlfriend Angie, who he feels is too sexually adventurous; Schmidt and Cece reconcile, after being let off a traffic violation by a cop they dub “black Santa”; and Jess visits Sam in hospital and they kiss. New Girl can often turn in some schmaltz among the comedy, and what better time to do it than Christmas? Streaming on Netflix.
“Christmas Waltz,” Mad Men season 5
Subterfuge! Drinking! Divorce! Well, it could be literally any episode of Mad Men, but it’s not — it’s a Christmas one. This episode captures some of the less enjoyable Christmassy feelings: loneliness, disappointment, and family arguments, namely. Joan is brought a surprise Christmas gift in the form of divorce papers, so Don, down on inspiration, takes her to the Jaguar showroom to test drive a car. They go to a bar and Joan, lamenting her lack of suitors these days, asks why Don never took interest in her. They flirt a little, and she admits that her mother raised her to “be admired”; when a man shows interest in her, Don encourages it. The next day Joan receives flowers that say her mother did a good job, and the episode ends with Don, reinvigorated by his conversation with Joan, standing in front of the office decorations and promising everyone they’ll be working on Jaguar over Christmas. It’s perhaps not a traditional Christmas, but it sure is a Mad Men one. Streaming on Netflix.
“Citizen Knope,” Parks and Recreation season 4
Leslie Knope is, of course, the hardest-working and most thoughtful person in the Parks department. But after being suspended and banned from working at home, she’s at a loose end and forms a Citizens Action Committee to keep busy, which thrives until she learns that her poll numbers have taken a hit due to her scandal and suspension. Feeling responsible, Chris lifts her suspension, but that isn’t the first Christmas miracle. After Leslie gives everyone a thoughtful Christmas gift, they pool together to make her a miniaturized City Hall out of gingerbread and, when that isn’t quite enough, reveal that they want to volunteer as her new campaign staff. Leslie is touched, and what follows is a very cute, very Parks and Rec ending, as Leslie is rewarded for her tireless efforts over the years as everybody’s colleague and friend. Streaming on Netflix.
“A Solstice Carol,” Xena: Warrior Princess season 2
In “A Solstice Carol,” Xena and Gabrielle work together to save an orphanage by drugging the king and impersonating the three fates in a spin on the Christmas Carol tale. They convince the king to change his ways, rescuing a donkey along the way, and the king reunites with his wife, who has been working on the orphanage after walking out on him. Victorious, Xena and Gabrielle leave the now-happy king and queen and donate the donkey to a man and woman walking with a baby. All of that is all good and Christmassy enough, but the best thing about Xena, of course, has always been the coded relationship between Xena and Gabrielle. This episode is no exception: Xena gives Gabrielle a carved sheep like the one she had as a child, and when Gabrielle apologises for not having a gift for Xena, Xena responds: “Gabrielle, you are a gift to me.” Merry Solstice, one and all. Streaming on Hulu.