‘Tis the season to be jolly and deck the halls and spend a lot of your hard earned pennies on presents and drink gallons of egg nog guilt-free.
But ‘tis also the season to watch a bunch of Christmas themed specials on TV! Almost every single franchise or group of characters or regular episodic TV series has a Christmas special – even Star Wars, although that one was absolutely atrocious.
Christmas specials revolve around a group of characters who, after some wacky antics, learn the true meaning of Christmas in time for the holidays, and by watching them, so do you. So, here are 15 really great TV Christmas specials to get you into the holiday spirit in anticipation of December 25.
15. Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas!
The live action movie adaptation of Dr. Seuss’ seminal children’s book, How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, directed by Ron Howard with Jim Carrey in the lead role in 2000, was a perfectly noble attempt to bring the spirit of the book to the screen. However, it is not the greatest screen adaptation of the story.
That title goes to this 1966 animated TV special, which was directed by Looney Tunes’ Chuck Jones and narrated by the legendary Boris Karloff, the guy most famous for playing Frankenstein’s monster in the old Universal horror movies.
It has the number one spot on TV Guide’s list of the 10 Best Family Holiday Specials, while it has that coveted 100% score on Rotten Tomatoes, with the consensus calling it “an adaptation that honors a classic holiday story – and has rightfully become a yuletide tradition of its own.”
14. Frosty the Snowman
In 1969, an entire 25 minute TV special was written, animated, and broadcasted based solely on the song “Frosty the Snowman.”
It’s one of the classic Raskin/Bass specials, and those guys are the overlords of the Christmas special game. The whole thing was designed to look like a Christmas card, which does make it look very sweet and saturated and Hallmark-y, but when you’re in the holiday spirit, that’s a good thing!
It’s become a Christmas mainstay over the past half a century, with IGN writing that “new children have been discovering the half hour Frosty the Snowman special every holiday season since its original airing in 1969.” TV Guide ranked Frosty the Snowman number 4 on its list of the 10 Best Family Holiday Specials.
13. Him and Her: “The Christmas Special”
Him and Her is a criminally underrated British comedy series. Nothing really happens in it, but that’s the point – nothing really happens in life. Him and Her never leaves its apartment setting – it presents the mundane aspects of life, just as mundane as they are in real life, but somehow also makes them hilarious.
The series’ Christmas special episode showed Christmas for what it really is: pretty much just another day, but with more food and some presents that get given. That’s all it is. All that ‘Christmas spirit’ mumbo jumbo you get in other Christmas specials is all a fallacy.
Him and Her is a work of understated comic genius, and it doesn’t have anywhere near the recognition it deserves – and “The Christmas Special” is one of its finest episodes.
12. Lost: “The Constant”
As a drama series with overtones of mystery and science fiction, set on a remote island in the middle of nowhere, Lost is not the kind of show that usually gets a Christmas episode, but surprisingly, it did.
In “The Constant,” Desmond keeps flashing back into Christmases of the past until finally he connects with Penny, the love of his life, in the present day, when she’s searching for him on – you guessed it – Christmas Eve! It just so happens that “The Constant” is praised as the greatest Lost episode ever made.
The writers struggled with it more than any other episode, because they had to avoid a temporal paradox in the time travel narrative (whatever that means), but the rewards are clear – it was named the best television episode of 2008 by Time magazine, IGN gave it a 10/10 review, and got it nominated for the Emmy Award for Outstanding Drama Series.
11. Black Mirror: “White Christmas”
Black Mirror is a Twilight Zone for a modern audience, with a focus on stories about how terrifying it is that technology is consuming society. The best episodes of Black Mirror are dark, twisted odysseys beyond the comprehension of the human mind, and that’s exactly what the Christmas special “White Christmas” is.
It toys with themes of artificial intelligence, augmented reality, and smart houses. It stars Jon Hamm and Rafe Spall as two guys stationed at a little remote outpost in the middle of snowbound nowhere who tell three stories that get presented as an anthology on-screen.
“White Christmas” also marked a special moment in Black Mirror history, as it was the final episode to be aired on Channel 4 before the rights to the show were sold to Netflix (who have the fourth season of the show – their second – on the way for a nearby release).
Den of Geek called the end of “White Christmas” – which was critically acclaimed from the offset – “a thrilling development that invites you to re-watch right from the beginning.”
10. American Dad!: “The Best Christmas Story Never Told”
American Dad! is renowned for delivering standout Christmas episodes every year in the same way that The Simpsons is known for its annual Halloween episodes.
The show has given us a grand total of eight Christmas episodes over the years: “The Best Christmas Story Never Told,” “The Most Adequate Christmas Ever,” “Rapture’s Delight,” “For Whom the Sleigh Bell Tolls,” “Season’s Beatings,” “Minstrel Krampus,” “Dreaming of a White Porsche Christmas,” and “Ninety North, Zero West.”
But it’s their very first one, “The Best Christmas Story Never Told,” that still stands as their greatest one.
The time travel story sees Stan go back to 1970 to save Christmas by killing Jane Fonda (if you want the logic behind that, ask Stan) and ends up turning present day America into a Soviet state. So, he has to go back in time again to shoot his hero: Ronald Reagan. Ah, the holidays.
9. How I Met Your Mother: “How Lily Stole Christmas”
Say what you will about that finale, but How I Met Your Mother was a great show. In the Christmas special, “How Lily Stole Christmas,” a very big issue in gender politics is addressed: how women feel when men call them the B word.
It’s framed in the themes and motifs of the holiday season to make it a Christmas special by Bob Saget’s old Ted voiceover replacing the word “bitch” with the word “Grinch” so that he wouldn’t have to curse in front of his kids (or in front of a sensitive network TV audience).
But then when Lily retaliates to finding out Ted called her a Grinch by taking all of the Christmas decorations and gifts out of the apartment and hiding them, Ted actually does call her a Grinch. Also, the subplot of Barney getting sick provided Neil Patrick Harris with the opportunity to mine for some comedy gold – an opportunity he most definitely seized.
8. Frasier: “Miracle on 3rd or 4th Street”
Frasier was a show that was famous for its smart and witty comedy (far smarter and wittier than your average primetime network sitcom), but it was also capable of tugging your heartstrings when the writers wanted to make a dramatic episode.
The show’s Christmas special, “Miracle on 3rd or 4th Street,” is a truly heartwarming episode, and totally characteristic for the show – it doesn’t feel weird or out of place or ‘too Christmassy’ at all.
The plot sees Frasier looking forward to spending the holidays with his son, only to have his hopes dashed when his ex-wife Lilith whisks the kid off to Austria and leaves poor old Dr. Crane all alone.
Bitter and miserable, Frasier takes the Christmas Day shift at KACL and has a terrible day, only to have his heart warmed at the end of the day when he witnesses an act of genuine human kindness – a contemporary Scrooge story.
7. Family Guy: “Road to the North Pole”
This special hour long episode of Family Guy sees Stewie and Brian heading up to the North Pole to meet Santa, with Stewie looking to wreak his revenge against Mr. Claus for ignoring him at a shopping mall and Brian hoping to prove to Stewie that the bearded toymaker isn’t real.
But when they get there, they find that Santa is very much real, he’s very much sick, and his elves are very much worked to the bone. It’s an interesting episode, because it takes a fresh and unique angle on the idea of the lost Christmas spirit.
These days, kids aren’t asking for wooden trains anymore – they want iPads and PlayStations, and Santa is naturally struggling with the workload.
This is an interesting premise, but it’s followed up in typical Family Guy fashion, as they decide to help out Santa and take on delivering the presents (an average Christmas special setup), only to take a dark turn at the first house as they kill a couple and tie up their children. Classic Family Guy.
6. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia: “A Very Sunny Christmas”
“A Very Sunny Christmas,” the hour long special Christmas episode in the sixth season of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, is the anti-Christmas special. Usually, Christmas specials are a learning experience for the characters and have a heartwarming ending.
But of course, this is It’s Always Sunny, so no one learns anything and terrible people do terrible things until more terrible things happen back to them. Every storyline in the episode is perfectly characteristic.
Mac and Charlie go in search of the holiday spirit and find that Mac’s parents used to steal all of his Christmas presents from other families and Charlie’s mom is a yuletide prostitute.
Meanwhile, Dennis and Dee seek to show Frank the error in his ways in the style of A Christmas Carol – but Frank is far more stupid and stubborn and weird than Ebenezer Scrooge, so all he does is frustrate them and then crash his new Lamborghini (Dennis’ dream present that Frank bought for himself). And then at the end, they all get screwed over.
5. Shrek the Halls
Aside from having a fantastic pun in the title, this Shrek Christmas special is a fantastic addition to the franchise.
Of course, fans will go in with a biased point of view, because they’ll do anything to see new material featuring the characters from the beloved franchise (which, obviously, DreamWorks’ stockholders took advantage of – everybody wins), but either way, Shrek the Halls is a great little holiday special.
The half hour show brought Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, Cameron Diaz, and Antonio Banderas back together in their roles as Shrek, Donkey, Fiona, and Puss in Boots, respectively, and the critics warmed to it.
They wrote that “Christmas in the swamp is great family fun,” which “relies on gross humor and slapstick to make the film fun, and with all the characters in the forest…this worked out well.” Lovely stuff.
4. The Simpsons: “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire”
The very first episode of the more than 600 that would follow over the next three decades, “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire” – the first full length episode of The Simpsons as its own TV series back in 1989 after airing a few animated shorts on The Tracey Ullman Show – just so happens to be one of the most wonderful and heartwarming Simpsons episodes ever made.
In their list of the Top 10 Holiday Specials, IGN ranked “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire” in fourth place, writing, “With the offbeat sense of humor that we have learned to love from The Simpsons, and a story showing the value of family on the Christmas holiday, we can’t help but watch this great special every year.”
After Homer doesn’t get a Christmas bonus and the Simpsons have to spend money on tattoo removal for Bart, the father and son duo head down to the track, desperate for a miracle to make some money as they bet on a greyhound, but then they lose and all seems lost – until they adopt the greyhound, Santa’s Little Helper, and realize the true meaning of Christmas.
3. The Office: “Christmas Special”
The original UK version of The Office created, written, and directed entirely by the powerhouse comedy duo of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant makes a good case for being the greatest TV series ever made. It’s certainly up there with the best.
This is because it wasn’t just hilarious, cultivating its own brand of cringe comedy, but also because its dramatic subplots were genuinely engaging and brilliantly told. The Christmas special was more than just a Christmas special. Gervais and Merchant made a two part Office Christmas special in lieu of both a third season and a series finale, so it’s a very important episode.
It’s the one where Tim and Dawn finally get together, where David finds happiness carving out a life of his own, and Gareth takes over the Slough branch of Wernham Hogg in his place. The perfect ending to a perfect series – and a perfect Christmas special.
2. South Park: “Red Sleigh Down”
Trust South Park to teach us the true meaning of Christmas in the most shocking and offensive way possible.
Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s intention with “Red Sleigh Down” was to show us that, at the height of the Iraq War, while everyone back in safe, capitalist America was lighting up Christmas trees and giving expensive gifts to one another, the children in Iraq were facing bombings and shootings on a daily basis, and it was all America’s fault.
However, Santa’s attempts to bring Christmas to Iraq get him shot out of the sky and tortured by terrorists, only to be rescued by Jesus – because that’s what Christmas is really about – in a homage to Rambo III. And there’s also that subplot of Jimmy stuttering his way through “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” which is funny in the way that makes you feel bad for laughing at it.
1. A Charlie Brown Christmas
Not only is A Charlie Brown Christmas broadcasted on TV every single Christmas, it’s broadcasted on TV twice every single Christmas – at least!
The 25 minute special cost less than $100,000 to produce back in 1965, and in the more than half a century since then, the makers of the show have seen that money roll back in over and over again as millions of people watch it every single year and it’s won both an Emmy Award and a Peabody Award.
No one had any faith in the special during production, which finished just a week before the broadcast, but then some magical happened: the critics unanimously fell in love with the special! They called it a “very neat transition from comic page to screen” that was “delightfully novel and amusing.”
It was finally a victory for poor, little, downtrodden Charlie Brown. When the special won the Emmy, Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz joked, “Charlie Brown is not used to winning, so we thank you.” Wonderful.