Having a break over the holidays is the perfect time for many 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 — precisely, Christmas episodes.
10. Buffy The Vampire Slayer “Amends”
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 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 the snow starts to fall. Angel lives, and the pair take a Christmas Day stroll through Sunnydale.
9. Friends “The One With The Holiday Armadillo.”
Friends corner the market on Thanksgiving episodes, but that’s not to say its Christmas offerings are shabby in comparison. This season seven entry explores Ross’ desire for his son to have a rounded education for the holiday season. As the Gellers are Jewish and Ben knows nothing of his heritage, Ross masterminds a cunning plan to make Hanukkah appealing to his son… by inventing Santa’s Tex-Mex pal, the holiday armadillo.
It wouldn’t be Friends if the whole debacle didn’t collapse into a bout of silliness, which it does, as soon as Chandler walks in wearing a Santa costume. But how will Ross make his Christmas-centric boy listen now, with the big red guy in the room? That’s not a concern for long, as Joey walks in dressed as Spider-Man.
8. American Horror Story: Asylum, “Unholy Night”
The last place on Earth you’d ever want to spend Christmas is at Briarcliffe asylum. Neither does its patients, to be honest, who have no choice in enduring the holidays at the hands of its deranged nurses and sadistic surgeons.
As expected, the festive spirit is well and truly dampened when Sister Mary Eunice shows mercy to a convicted serial killer Leigh Emerson. Locked up for murdering several people dressed as Santa Claus, he’s given back his costume as a gesture of goodwill in the hopes that he will feel remorse. A bit of a bizarre act seeing as he’s still intent on slashing and stabbing anyone he feels is deserving of death, but hey, at least he uses an ornamental star to do his dirty work.
7. Roseanne “White Trash Christmas.”
Few sitcom families are as willing to embrace their working-class status as the Conners, never pretending to be anything other than the occasionally dysfunctional, always loving, a paycheck-to-paycheck team they are. They don’t have time for anyone who tries to mask such artificially. It’s no surprise, then, that upon receipt of a letter from the Neighborhood Association insisting that exterior Christmas decorations be kept to a minimum this year, they react in the most dissatisfied, “white trash” manner possible, utterly smothering their house and garden with tacky festive décor. Santas, multiple managers, neon signs from the local bar: nothing is too kitsch.
Their defiant spirit is infectious, a representation of shamelessness and proud vulgarity that has to be applauded. Meanwhile, Dan and Roseanne give Christmas money to daughter Becky and her husband Mark – but they’re not too happy with how she uses it. For a darker Roseanne Christmas, check out “No Place Like Home For The Holidays,” which sees the youngest daughter Darlene discover the truth about her boyfriend David’s family life.
6. Kenan and Kel “Merry Christmas, Kenan”
Kenan And Kel rates among Nickelodeon’s funniest and most overlooked series. An unabashed throwback to stage and early screen – every episode begins and concludes with the two titular characters addressing the audience, both in-studio and at home, in front of a red curtain; the sets lurking beyond are few and restricted in size – it deals primarily in classic slapstick and escalating farce. The as-live spirit and form of the show are ideally suited to the show’s solitary foray into festive matters, which sees scheming Kenan take on a role as a department-store Santa in a bid to make cash to purchase “the bike of bikes.”
5. Fresh Off The Boat “Real Santa.”
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 how far Jessica will go for her kids.
4. Black Mirror “White Christmas.”
Charlie Brooker’s techno-paranoia-come-social-satire masterpiece Black Mirror is one of the most fascinating shows of the new millennium, a dystopian, discomfiting melange of jet-black comedy and Twilight Zone–style morality plays. Regular episodes of the show have been hour-long standalone, but for the Christmas special, Charlie Brooker opted for a slightly more unusual structure, with three loosely connected short stories taking place within a larger framework tale.
Set at a remote outpost in the dead of a snowy winter, Joe Potter and Matt Trent (portrayed by the inspired team of Rafe Spall and Jon Hamm) celebrate Christmas together. As Wizzard’s “I Wish It Could Be Christmas every day” plays on the radio, the two begin to discuss why they opted to take the jobs they’re in. They recount a triumvirate of unnerving, disarming sci-fi tales – featuring augmented reality, innovative technology and futuristic restraining orders – that meticulously coalesce in a jaw-dropping conclusion. This is festive drama at its most unconventional, challenging, and downright entertaining.
3. It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia “A Very Sunny Christmas.”
It 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 throws rocks at trains. This episode showcases the best and worst of the Sunny gang, as all holiday episodes should do.
2. Hey Arnold “Arnolds Christmas.”
’90s nostalgia has prompted wholesale revisitation of many childhood favorites, but few hold up to the scrutiny, like Hey Arnold! The critically-acclaimed Nicktoon offered something different from other kids’ cartoons, a funny fourth-grade perspective on big-city life imbued not just with awe and excitement but also a palpable sense of melancholy and a willingness to tackle life’s big questions head-on. The stunning jazz soundtrack further distinguished the show from its brethren.
The show’s Christmas episode is its definitive moment: Arnold’s boarding house is running a Secret Santa, and Arnold draws Mr Hyunh, a Vietnamese restaurant worker. We learn that he gave his daughter to a US soldier during the Vietnam War in a bid to secure her a safer life, and he hasn’t been able to track her down since. Arnold and his friend Gerald do their best to track her down as the big day imminently beckons. Meanwhile, eternally insecure bully Helga desperately yearns for the year’s must-have Nancy Spumoni snow boots. The stories merge touchingly, leading to a real triumph-of-the-human-spirit conclusion guaranteed to deliver heartwarming festive feels. It’s a deep Christmas special with an emotional intelligence far beyond its years.
1. Supernatural “A Very Supernatural Christmas”
“A Special Presentation” notes that the retro on-screen title card preceded Supernatural’s only Christmas episode. It’s not wrong: this is a violent, twisted, Very Supernatural Christmas. Sam and Dean, brothers who hunt down a vast array of supernatural beings and demons, are in Michigan, assisting a woman whose husband has disappeared around Christmas time.
Considerations of the “anti-Claus” – the antithesis of old St. Nick, a concept inspired by legends such as Krampus – gives way to the discovery of pagan gods (inspired by spiritual predecessors to Father Christmas as we know him today) taking ritual human sacrifices annually. Tense, disturbing stuff, but it’s laced with the show’s trademark wit. Balancing out the darkness also: a touching flashback sequence, weaved throughout the episode proper, to one of Sam and Dean’s childhood Christmases. It lends the episode a certain warmth and fun that it benefits from, the mesh of tones making for perfect unconventional festive fun.