Perhaps no medium has embraced Christmas and its spirit of family, togetherness and joy quite like TV.
From uplifting episodes which swap the laughs for pathos, to those which satirise the holiday and poke fun at how commercialised it’s become, the festive season and sitcoms pretty much go hand in hand, with some absolute classic episodes of shows coming in a Christmas setting.
We’re just focusing on festive themed sitcom episodes here, which means the Morecambe and Wise Christmas specials won’t be making an appearance, as much as we adore them.
When you consider that we had to leave out Only Fools and Horses, Family Guy, Happy Endings, Black Mirror, Happy Days, Scrubs, M*A*S*H, Cheers, Gavin and Stacey, Futurama, Bob’s Burgers, and a bunch of others, it’s safe to say that sitcoms in both the UK and the U.S. bloody love a Christmas special!
Here’s just twelve of the best to enjoy and get you into the Christmas spirit.
The Simpsons – ‘The Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire’ (1989)
Not only is it one of the greatest Christmas episodes ever, it’s also the first ever episode of the Simpsons – kick starting a TV juggernaut which has spawned 27 seasons and some of the greatest TV treats ever seen on the box. Besides being the world’s introduction to Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa and Maggie, it’s also a cracker of a holiday episode, as Homer desperately tries to get enough cash together for Xmas by working as a mall Santa, before failing miserably when he tries to double his money betting on dog racing.
There’s a happy ending though, of course, as Homer and Bart take Santa’s Little Helper home to the family and all is forgiven. The show has gone back to the festive well a few more times – most notable in ‘She of Little Faith’, ‘Marge Be Not Proud’ and ‘Holidays of Future Passed’ – but the original is still the best.
The Office (UK) – ‘Christmas Special Part 2’ (2003)
The Christmas-themed finale of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s beloved, cringe comedy wraps the story up far more perfectly than we could ever have imagined. While the majority of the episode focuses on David Brent’s quest for love after the show’s titular documentary made him out to be a bit of a dick, the real heart of the episode (as was the series itself) is Tim and Dawn.
Although Tim, much like the audience, “never really thought it would have a happy ending”, the show ended up giving us not one, but two – three, in fact, if you count poor old David Brent finally making everyone in the office laugh with one of his bad impressions. A Christmas miracle!
Friends – ‘The One With The Holiday Armadillo’ (2000)
You can count Ross Geller among those who think non-Christmas holidays get a bit of a bum deal during the December holiday season, and he makes it his mission to teach his son Ben about Hanukkah and his Jewish heritage. However, his plan to show up dressed as Santa Claus and bestow his wisdom about the Festival of Lights, comes unravelled when the fancy dress store only has an armadillo costume, giving birth to one of the best and strangest Christmas characters of all time, ‘The Holiday Armadillo’ (aka. “weird turtle man”).
Soon, Chandler has shown up as Santa Claus and Joey as Superman (because why not?), leaving us with one of the funniest scenes in the show’s history which coincidentally “looks like the Easter Bunny’s funeral”. We also find out that Monica has a weird Santa fetish.
This episode gets the nod over fellow Friends Christmas classic ‘The One With The Routine’ – but considering that one has the incredible scene featuring Monica and Ross’ childhood dance routine, you may as well go and check that one out too.
Community – ‘Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas’ (2010)
This one is unquestionably one of the most ambitious holiday episodes ever put together, which is something of a standard for Dan Harmon’s cult comedy Community. While season one’s ‘Comparative Religion’ pitting Christian Shirley against the differing religions of the others in the group, and Glee parody ‘Regional Holiday Music’ are both classics, it’s ‘Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas’ which is the ultimate Community Xmas episode.
Abed suddenly starts viewing the entire world in stop-motion animation and the rest of the study group are left trying to find out the reason why. The group eventually buy into the premise and indulge in the fantasy to get to the bottom of Abed’s stranger than usual behaviour.
What starts out as a hilarious and creative deconstruction of Christmas, becomes a genuinely moving story as it progresses, as the reasons for Abed’s minor breakdown become apparent. As Abed puts it: “The meaning of Christmas is the idea that Christmas has meaning. And it can mean whatever we want”.
The Royle Family – ‘Christmas Special’ (1999)
Although Christmas specials have become a bit of a Royle Family tradition in recent years, it’s the festive episode from the show’s original run which still ranks as its best. As is the norm, the family gather around the television set, although Denise is now heavily pregnant. Still, at least she’s got a mobile phone for when the baby arrives. It’s just a shame that Barbara’s turkey was so dry…
The episode stealer, of course, is the ending in which Denise goes into labour three weeks early in the bathroom and begins to panic she won’t be a good mother. A tearful Jim comforts her by telling her about when her and Anthony were born and how he would do anything for them. It’s a vivid and emotional reminder why the British sitcom is such a beloved classic.
Seinfeld – The Strike (1997)
Awkward family dinners are something of a staple of Christmas but trust Seinfeld to put a completely new twist on the idea. Instead of celebrating Xmas like the majority of America, George Costanza’s father has opted for a completely made up holiday called ‘Festivus’, which is celebrated around a bare pole rather than a tree, and includes customs like “the airing of grievances” and “feats of strength”.
The classic episode not only introduced us all to the idea of a “two-face”, but people also loved the idea of ‘Festivus’ so much, that Seinfeld fans around the world still celebrate it to this day. We doubt their one liners are as snappy as the characters’ on the show, though.
Blackadder – ‘Blackadder’s Christmas Carol’ (1988)
A fantastic Yuletide episode of the British stalwart, putting a spin not only on the story of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and the Scrooge character, but on the very character of Blackadder himself. Renowned in the rest of the show (well, from series two onwards, anyway) as a sarcastic and cunning anti-hero, in the festive special Ebenezer Blackadder is known as the nicest man in England.
However, after so many people take advantage of Blackadder’s kindness, he is visited by The Spirit of Christmas who shows him his shrewd and manipulative ancestors. It’s a ploy to show how Ebenezer is better than what came before him, but it predictably backfires as Blackadder comes to admire his ancestors’ take-no-crap attitude. Unfortunately, his new “bad guys have all the fun” mantra doesn’t serve him too well by the episode’s end.
The Office (U.S.) – ‘Christmas Party’ (2005)
An absolute classic episode of the American version of The Office, bringing to life every nightmarish workplace Christmas party you’ve ever experienced. The Dunder Mifflin Paper Company staff are thrilled about the Xmas party, but after well meaning buffoon Michael Scott completely overspends in the office’s Secret Santa, he enforces a game of “Yankee swap” because he hates the oven mitts Phyllis made for him, which is particularly annoying to Jim considering how much effort he’s gone to get love of his life Pam the perfect sentimental gift.
Heavy boozing soon follows, causing chaos (including alcoholic Meredith giving Michael an eyeful) but at least the boss learns that the best gift he can give his employees is a good time. Plus, Pam gets Jim’s gift in end, sans the love letter, of course. ‘A Benihana Christmas’, featuring Michael and Andy bringing two waitresses back to the office party as their dates, only for Michael to forget which of the two girls is “his”, is also worth a watch.
Arrested Development – ‘Afternoon Delight’ (2004)
Perhaps the best sitcom ever made, the too often under-appreciated U.S. cult classic rolled out an absolute cringe-packed episode to put its own twist on the festive formula. Things get absurd and awkward when Michael and Maebe accidentally sing the ballad ‘Afternoon Delight’ together on karaoke in front of all the Bluth Company employees at the Xmas party, only realising its sexual connotations far too late. In fact, the entire episode is crammed with double entrendres, probably giving it the unofficial award for most sex jokes in a holiday episode.
Dysfunctional families are something of a theme over Christmas, but it’s unlikely that any other relatives have ever run over their son-in-law because they’ve taken too many pain meds or dropped their magician brother from a crane. No show does holiday hi-jinks quite like Arrested Development and, to be honest, nor should it.
Parks and Recreation – ‘Citizen Knope’ (2011)
‘Christmas Scandal’ got the ball rolling on great Parks and Rec Christmas episodes, with a festive sex scandal and April’s feelings for Andy really starting to become apparent. But it’s season four’s ‘Citizen Knope’ which is the ultimate feel-good festive episode, courtesy of one of the most feel-good sitcoms ever.
Workaholic Leslie is serving a two week suspension from her job, but can’t handle not being in the office and she soon sets up a citizens action committee so she can hassle City Manager Chris more than ever. Meanwhile, her friends in the Parks Department are attempting to get the perfect gift for Leslie, to repay her for all the thoughtful and sweet gifts she’s given them in the past.
The ending of this one is about as heart-warming as it gets, but the show stealer is Barney Varm who is so eager for Ben to come and work at his accounting firm, in what becomes one of the series’ best running gags.
30 Rock – ‘Ludachristmas’ (2007)
The team behind TGS With Tracey Jordan all have pretty brutal family lives, which is why they choose to celebrate the festive period together, as a surrogate family with the alcohol fuelled tradition of ‘Ludachristmas’, much to the chagrin of NBC page Kenneth.
Meanwhile, Liz Lemon gets a visit from her loving family, including her brother (played by Andy Richter) who has ‘Trauma Induced Nivea Aphasia’ and still believes it’s 1985. Jack and his mother are not pleased, however, at the Lemon Party’s happiness (as Richard Lemon points out: “It isnt a Lemon party without old Dick!”) and they vow to prove Liz’s joyful parents are just as miserable as everyone else.
It’s basically an anti-Christmas episode, with the lesson that everyone should manage their expectations over the Yuletide period. Still, at the end of the day, everyone just gets drunk anyway, and isn’t that the real spirit of Xmas?
South Park – ‘Mr Hankey, The Christmas Poo’ (1997)
Trey Parker and Matt Stone have a bit of form for unconventional Christmas stories. Lest we forget ‘Woodland Critter Christmas’, a warped festive tale from the twisted mind of Eric Cartman. Still, South Park raised the levels of bizarreness as high as they could probably go in the show’s first season, with a story about a literal Christmas loving piece of shit.
In this one, Jewish character Kyle feels left out of the town’s Christmas celebrations but is comforted by the titular Mr. Hankey, a friendly talking turd only he can see. Then, as the townspeople go typically overboard removing Xmas decorations so as not to offend anyone, it’s up to Kyle to make people believe in Mr. Hankey and remember the real meaning of Christmas. After all, “Mr. Hankey, the Christmas Poo / He loves me, I love you / Which means, vicariously, he loves you!”