Every single one of 30 Rock's Christmas episodes is a zany delight that brings out the best in the show. During its seven-season run, the workplace comedy embraced the holiday spirit to tell tales both heartfelt and truly demented, whether that meant forcing neurotic showrunner Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) to face the truth about her family, allowing earnest page Kenneth (Jack McBrayer) to teach everyone the true meaning of Christmas, or giving magnificent narcissist Jenna (Jane Krakowski) cause to hijack the show to sing increasingly horrifying Christmas carols. But the true magic of 30 Rock's Christmas installments lies in the relationship between Jack (Alec Baldwin) and his mother, Colleen (Elaine Stritch). With just one exception (season four's "Secret Santa"), Colleen visits New York in every 30 Rock Christmas episode to both emotionally torture and bestow begrudging affection upon her son. Baldwin and Stritch are pitch perfect together, and every scene between them nails that balance of irreverence and heart that makes 30 Rock so wonderful.
The aggressively quaint town of Stars Hollow loves nothing more than a reason to decorate to within an inch of its life, so Christmas has a special place in its heart. But while the townspeople frost their businesses in snowflakes and find their inner carolers, the Gilmore family is usually experiencing some sort of significant, life-challenging event. Heartbreak and health scares feature heavily in the series' Christmas episodes, especially in the first season's excellent "Forgiveness and Stuff." But not even Rory (Alexis Bledel) and Lorelei (Lauren Graham) can completely escape the allure of Stars Hollow, and so there are still impromptu ice rinks (season five's "A Woman of Questionable Morals"), winter carnival mishaps (season three's "That'll Do, Pig"), and snowstorms forcing everyone together for a holly jolly dinner (season two's "The Bracebridge Dinner").
While the showbiz jokes are far from the strongest element of Netflix's cynical animated comedy, BoJack Horseman nonetheless offers up a sharp satire of '90s sitcoms with this one-off Christmas special. "Sabrina's Christmas Wish" has us watch BoJack (Will Arnett) as he watches a Christmas episode of Horsin' Around, the fictional multi-camera sitcom that launched both his career and his eventual spiral into irrelevance. The special is cheesy, maudlin, and nonsensical. But it proves that series creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg knows the "holiday episode" genre inside and out, and the jokes are just self-reflexive enough that "Sabrina's Christmas Wish" never becomes the treacly Christmas fare it's satirizing.
Orange Is the New Black
Netflix's wildly popular prison dramedy capped off its first season with an episode that borrows elements from traditional Christmas specials while subverting them entirely. As Litchfield Penitentiary prepares for its Christmas pageant — one that will allow many of the inmates to (sometimes literally) find their voices — Piper (Taylor Schilling) falls deeper and deeper into the mania that's been threatening to swallow her up all season. The most impressive thing about "Can't Fix Crazy," though, is that while others are putting aside prison politics in the spirit of the holiday, Piper's conflict with sneering queen bee Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning) adds a dark undercurrent to an otherwise lovely Christmas storyline.
While The Office underwent many chaotic changes throughout its 10-season run, the employees of Dunder Mifflin almost always made room to celebrate Christmas together. Sure, the parties were almost always disasters, and, okay, Michael Scott (Steve Carell) is just about the worst at making things merry, despite his very best efforts. But when The Office was at its best, its Christmas episodes were great. Many fans point to the season three's "Benihana Christmas" as a particular standout, but my personal favorite is still season one's straightforward and perfectly awkward "Christmas Party." All the characters are just so themselves in this episode, and there may be no better Jim and Pam moment than when she trades in an iPod — the fanciest of 2005 gifts — for the teapot he bought her and stuffed to the brim with personalized memories.
There are plenty of lovably bonkers families on this list, but none is quite so enthusiastic about celebrating the holidays as the Belchers. Bob, Linda, and their three unapologetically weirdo offspring throw themselves into the holiday spirit with reckless — and I mean reckless — abandon. Season six's "Nice-Capades" features tiny hurricane Louise trying desperately to be good for Santa, enlisting everyone she knows to help sell the illusion in a heavily decorated mall. Season four's "Christmas in the Car" puts the Belchers' lives in danger via a road-raging driver who's always ominous even though his truck is painted like a candy cane. But the weirdest — and most personal — is "God Rest Ye Merry Mannequins," the show's very first Christmas episode, in which the Belchers try to reunite a man with his long-lost love ... which just happens to be a mannequin. Bob's Burgers is a special cartoon to begin with, but it's also one of the rare few that would ever enthusiastically stage a Christmas episode that takes its main inspiration from Lars and the Real Girl.
Family dinners and lessons learned are standby Christmas episode clichés. But in its second season, New Girl managed to find a new approach by tackling a very real holiday problem: too many parties. In "Santa," Jess (Zooey Deschanel) and her equally dysfunctional roommates dodge awkward situations by party-hopping throughout Los Angeles, wreaking havoc and — inevitably — learning lessons along the way.
Your heart will not be warmed as you watch the demented Bluth family get drunk, trash-talk their employees, and stage accidentally-on-purpose incestuous karaoke duets. But you will be entertained. The Bluth office Christmas party in "Afternoon Delight" is a neat encapsulation of this absurdist series, letting the cast run wild for one of the most twisted Christmas episodes on this or any list.
The Mary Tyler Moore Show
Mary Richards takes on the true spirit of giving in "Christmas and the Hard-Luck Kid," The Mary Tyler Moore Show's first Christmas special. But when she offers to take on a co-worker's Christmas Eve shift, Mary finds herself far lonelier than she had anticipated; it is her first Christmas after a big break-up, after all. Moore's brilliant ability to singlehandedly command a stage and capture an audience is on full display in this episode, as is The Mary Tyler Moore Show's immediate grip on its characters and story. As a bonus, you'll get to see a ton of Christmas decorations from the '70s, which might just be the best Christmas decorations of all.
Seinfeld always did its best to undercut the overwhelmingly sweet nature of traditional Christmas episodes — most memorably with "The Strike" and its introduction of Festivus, the holiday George's father created years ago to fight back against the holiday season's rampant commercialism. (Incredibly, this tradition only comes up in the show's ninth and final season.) But if you'd rather have more of Julia Louis Dreyfus's Elaine Benes in your holiday (and who wouldn't?), you can turn to season four's "The Pick," in which Elaine accidentally sends out a NSFW Christmas card.
Community boasts no fewer than three stellar Christmas episodes, each with its own distinctive character. Season one's "Comparative Religion" forces all the members of the study group to not only face their differences but embrace them; it also involves a bloody knock-down, drag-out brawl. From season two, "Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas" is one of the most ambitious episodes in the show's six-season run, drawing inspiration from the classic Rankin-Bass holiday specials for a bittersweet adventure in claymation. And in season three, "Regional Holiday Music" spoofs Glee and corny Christmas musicals, complete with a handy skewering of the purported sex appeal of "Santa Baby" starring Alison Brie and a horrified Joel McHale.
Now in its third season, Brooklyn Nine-Nine has fully accepted the warm embrace of sitcom holiday episodes. The series' Halloween specials have traditionally won the lion's share of the writers' room's attention, thanks to a running storyline that allows Jake (Andy Samberg) and Captain Holt (Andre Braugher) to show off their fiercely competitive natures. However, the Christmas episodes display a wider range of comedy, and they're certainly worth a look. Season one's "Christmas" helps Jake and Holt get past their initial animosity to a new place of understanding, while season three's "Yippie Kayak" drops Jake and his colleagues into a Die Hard–style hostage crisis. Brooklyn Nine-Nine is one of the most consistently funny and earnest shows on TV right now, and it's no surprise that its Christmas episodes reflect as much.
British television loves a good Christmas special, so it makes sense that one of its longest-standing shows has returned to that well again and again. While many British Christmas specials act as one-offs — amusing sidebars to the regular season's adventures — Doctor Who's holiday plots have often gone in the opposite direction. Crucial plots rear their alien heads at Christmastime; 2012's "The Snowmen" even introduced a new companion in Jenna Coleman's Clara. Hulu has all the new Who (from 2005 on) Christmas specials available to stream, so you can pick your flavor of holiday alien drama depending on your preference of Doctor 10 (David Tennant), 11 (Matt Smith), or 12 (Peter Capaldi).
Fresh Off the Boat
After missing the chance to dive into Christmas with its first season, Fresh Off the Boat showcases its sharp humor and adorable family shenanigans in season two's "The Real Santa," a Christmas episode that brings out the best the show has to offer. As Eddie (Hudson Yang) and Emery (Forrest Wheeler) scramble to find their mother, Jessica (Constance Wu), the perfect gift, she scrambles to keep her youngest son, Evan (the adorable Ian Chen), from learning the truth about Santa Claus. It's all about preserving the magic of Christmas no matter how old you are, and its centerpiece is a wonderful performance by Wu, who continues to be one of 2015's most prized breakout actors with one of the most memorable depictions of Santa possibly ever.
There are precious few television episodes devoted to Hanukkah, which is why the earnest, deeply affecting Rugrats special about the holiday is such a gem. "A Rugrats Chanukah" tells the story of the Festival of Lights through the babies, who imagine themselves as its key players (e.g., Tommy as Judah) — to educational and adorable effect. The same device is used for "A Rugrats Passover," which casts Tommy as Moses and his bossy cousin Angelica as the pharaoh. And even though these retellings would be notable on their own, the beautiful stories of how the blended Kropotkin-Pickles family comes together to celebrate really makes them shine.
When it wasn't exploring hidden corners of a city through the eyes of delightful weirdo kids, the Nickelodeon cartoon Hey Arnold! was excellent at carrying out emotional blindsides that left you reeling and teary. Its holiday episodes are especially good at this; the first season's "Arnold's Christmas" is downright devastating. While the boarding house Arnold grows up in is typically a source of slapstick absurdity, this installment puts some of the usual hijinks aside as the house's resident Secret Santa takes Arnold on a unexpectedly heartbreaking journey. Getting to know Vietnamese immigrant Mr. Hyunh, and the story of what he has sacrificed over the years, makes for an unusual and incredibly touching episode. Then there's Arnold's secret admirer Helga, who works her butt off behind the scenes to help Arnold get Mr. Hyunh the perfect gift. It's a truly touching episode of a sensitive cartoon that will make you appreciate whatever family you've got, chosen or otherwise.
Miscellaneous but important
Rejoice, all ye devotees of Chrismukkah, The OC's combination holiday that honors both Christmas and Hanukkah. After years of outcry, the teen soap is now streaming online thanks to the CW Seed. After its introduction in the show's first season, Chrismukkah, which owes plenty to Seinfeld's Festivus, became an annual event for The OC, its makeshift traditions striking chords within blended families the nation over. You can even have a mini marathon with four episodes from each season: season one's "The Best Chrismukkah Ever," season two's "The Chrismukkah That Almost Wasn't," season three's "The Chrismukkah Bar Mitz-vahkkah," and season four's "The Chrismukk-huh?" Of course, this is still a soap, and so drunk driving, shoplifting, and love triangles are omnipresent, but hey. You have to break up the earnest Christmas episode somehow, so why not with the preternaturally quick wit of Orange County teens?
We'll be honest: advertising alone isn't enough for Vox, or most newsrooms, to do the amount of high-quality journalism that the world needs and keep it free. We count on contributor support in order to produce nuanced, clear, and optimistic journalism. We don't have a paywall or ask our readers to subscribe in order to see our content, so instead, we’re coming to you this #GivingTuesday to ask you to make an investment in our future. If you’ve read an explainer this year that helped you to see an issue more clearly, got the answer to a long-time question, or just plain learned something, then