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One Good Thing: Watching Gordon Ramsay’s Christmas special is one of my favorite holiday traditions

Watch Ramsay prepare Christmas favorites with a twist while his mom gives him a hard time

Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Christmas is a time to return to favorite movies and TV shows. Every year, I revisit It’s a Wonderful Life and A Charlie Brown Christmas. Plenty of other people have made traditions out of Die Hard or the Rankin/Bass Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer or Home Alone. Honestly, if you want to watch Hustlers every year because it has one memorable scene set at Christmas, I’m not going to tell you not to!

But in recent years, I’ve started a new tradition. I pull up YouTube, I curl up with my wife or some friends, and I watch Christmas With Gordon, a 2010 two-part special from the UK that was rebranded Gordon Ramsay’s Ultimate Christmas when it aired in the States. It has everything I want out of a Christmas special: family togetherness, great recipes, and occasional shots of a man sharpening knives and then using them to destroy Christmas ornaments.

Gordon Ramsay is one of my favorite TV chefs. He became famous for being incredibly angry all the time on his Fox reality show Hell’s Kitchen, but within the grammar of reality TV, his anger felt more performative than abusive. It was opt-in anger, where the targets were a part of the performance as well.

And after Hell’s Kitchen became a hit, Ramsay immediately pivoted to being vaguely cuddly. The shows Kitchen Nightmares and MasterChef made him seem like someone who was extremely passionate about food and who was caring and empathetic toward his fellow humans. He really wanted to help people be better chefs, or at least he was very good at playing someone who wanted that on TV. And MasterChef Junior turned out to be his masterstroke, at least from an American perspective. (His persona had long been friendlier in the UK.) “See?” the show seemed to argue. “He’s really good with kids!”

But if you want to see Ramsay’s appeal distilled into roughly 90 minutes of television, Christmas With Gordon is the program to watch. The recipes are genuinely tasty. (I’ve cooked several over the years.) At least one is truly baffling — it’s a stuffing that seems to be mostly made out of pork. And Ramsay seems at once incredibly warm around his family and slightly awkward, like he’s not sure how to get them involved. Near the end of the special’s first part, Gordon’s mother arrives to help him prepare dessert, as if the producers want you to know that even Gordon Ramsay has a mom who gives him a hard time about his cooking.

Also, as I hinted above, there are several moments when he glares menacingly at the camera and sharpens knives, before destroying a Christmas ornament in each one of them, as if to remind you that, yes, he still gets angry — but only at inanimate objects.

British television has a long tradition of Christmas specials, in which the cast of a popular show gathers for a one-off episode set around the holidays. Sometimes, the show has been over for some time; in the case of the original The Office, a two-part Christmas special functioned as the series finale and wrapped up the show’s stories over a year after the season two finale. But more often, these specials are just a way to check in between seasons with your favorite series, at a time of year when checking in with old friends is tradition. (Downton Abbey made a habit of airing a yearly Christmas special, for instance.)

It’s wild to me that the concept of a TV show’s cast reuniting for a Christmas special hasn’t caught on in America. Christmas is a time when watching television as a family is a given for many people, and who wouldn’t want a quick check-in with the gang from Cheers or something? Sure, the canceled time-travel drama Timeless used the format to wrap up its story a couple of years ago, and a few shows have produced Christmas specials as lead-ins to new seasons — Netflix’s Sense8 aired one in 2016, ahead of its second season, and HBO’s Euphoria just aired one as a prelude to the second season it will launch in 2021.

But I think we need more specials popping up around the holidays, as a general rule. Doctor Who produces a new episode almost every year as a Christmas one-off, no matter where it is in its production cycle. We should have something like that, too! Or at the very least, all our TV chefs should be forced to cook Christmas favorites while pretending to be happy about it!

Until then, however, we can just keep watching Christmas With Gordon to see what happens when a notoriously grouchy chef puts on a smile for the holidays. I know that most of Ramsay’s TV persona is an act. I also think it’s amusing to see just how unnaturally his forehead wrinkles when he lets in the Christmas spirit, if only for a few seconds.

Also his gravy recipe rules. You should really try it.

Christmas With Gordon is available on YouTube — both in bits and pieces on Ramsay’s YouTube channel and in whole (and in dubiously legal fashion) elsewhere. For more recommendations from the world of culture, check out the One Good Thing archives.