I love Christmas. Perhaps this is an obvious statement, but I don’t really care. I love Christmas. It’s fun to get gifts. It’s fun to give gifts. Also, Christmas is my birthday and thus doubly special to me. I know the holiday season is not all about celebrating the wonder of my existence, but it’s fun to pretend that the wreaths, the trees, the lights, the songs and especially the holiday-themed television episodes are a way of making up for the fact that I have to share my day with such a large percentage of the western world.
You may have noticed the word “especially” before “holiday-themed television episodes” in that paragraph. That’s because I love Christmas TV. Probably even more than I love popping in my Love Actually DVD as soon as Thanksgiving dinner is off the table. Each year brings new episodes to the canon (I can think of several really excellent episodes from this year, some of which you’ll see mentioned below), but going back and revisiting the “classics” is good fun too.
I could not possibly come up with a comprehensive list of Christmas TV, and without one I wouldn’t dare to try an official East Cupcake top ten list. What I have to offer, however, is a list of ten Christmas episodes–or at least ten shows, there are a few series on this list that have turned out more than one excellent Christmas episode–that I especially love. This isn’t definitive, it isn’t complete, it’s just a handful of suggestions, things I plan to watch over the next few days to get in the spirit of this time of year.
1. Veronica Mars – “An Echolls Family Christmas”
I’m actually watching this episode as I type this. The first season of Veronica Mars is one of the greats: smart, well-plotted, sometimes very funny and frequently very dark. And “An Echolls Family Christmas” is a stand-out episode. The central mystery plays with most of the main characters, only introducing a couple of extraneous guests to help flesh out the world of the show (and offer up a baddie), and putting Neptune’s economic divide on full display, and the B-plot is a puzzle piece to the overall arc of the season. It’s a fun and funny episode that builds the world, furthers the plot and advances both characters and relationships. And it’s not so much about Christmas as it is set to a holiday backdrop, with carols and twinkly lights there to remind you of the season without forcing it on you.
2. Buffy the Vampire Slayer – “Amends”
“Amends” is one of Buffy‘s most memorable episodes. It plays a little game of Ghosts of Christmas Past as the First (in its first appearance, long before its role as the Big Bad to end all Big Bads in season 7) haunts Angel in the guise of his past victims. The episode is very dark, taking Angel to the brink of suicide, but its overall message is one of healing and forgiveness (and the magical powers of snow). And if Sarah Michelle Gellar doesn’t rip your heart out, well, you didn’t have a heart to begin with.
3. Gilmore Girls – “Forgiveness and Stuff,” “The Bracebridge Dinner”
The A.V. Club has been ringing in the season with a daily entry in their T.V. Club Advent Calendar and last week they covered
“Forgiveness and Stuff,” Gilmore Girls
‘ first season Christmas episode. David Sims talked about what a lovely job the episode does with addressing the family tensions that were especially prevalent in that first season, and “The Bracebridge Dinner,” expands on that–a year down the line the relationship between Lorelai and her parents has changed, things aren’t as tense. When you look at the two episodes back to back you can see how much things have progressed; where Lorelai was an outsider looking in on her family in the first season, she’s more of a participant in season 2, even if it takes some needling from Rory. She talks to her parents, even jokes with them a little, and while she’s still not thrilled with the suggestion that she might be a little like her mother, she’s clearly embraced her role in the Gilmore family. Neither episode throws the holiday at you, either. “Forgiveness and Stuff” uses it as a setting, and the holiday party at the center of “The Bracebridge Dinner” is more interested in having fun with its Elizabethan theme than any sort of religious celebration.
4. Community – “Comparative Religion,” “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas,” “Regional Holiday Music”
Community has now turned out a Christmas episode in each of its three seasons and while the first one was fine (worth it for the Forest Whitaker eye alone), the second and third are outstanding. “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” manages to be a silly and loving homage to the stop motion Christmas specials of yore and also a heartbreaking story about Abed’s inability to deal with his own emotions. “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” is actually quite similar to a later episode in season 2, “Advanced Dungeons and Dragons.” They’re both stories of this study group sitting in a room with someone they believe is at risk, trying to talk them down in their own ways, but “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” hides it behind stop motion and musical numbers. In many ways it is tremendously sad. “Regional Holiday Music,” however, is transcendant. If Community never comes back (though I’m choosing to remain optimistic), at least it will have ended on an absolute high note, a better episode of Glee than any episode Glee has ever done. The songs are goofy, the jokes send up Glee, yes, but also aspects of Community, like all the messed up dimensions of Annie’s relationship with Jeff. And it’s unrelentingly hilarious.
5. The O.C. – “The Best Chrismukkah Ever,” “The Chrismukkah That Almost Wasn’t,” “The Chrismukk-huh?”
The O.C. did a Chrismukkah episode in each of its four seasons, but I’m only recommending three of them because I can barely remember the events of “The Chrismukkah Bar Mitzvah-kah” (beyond the fact that there was a Bar Mitzvah). The other three episodes are each delightful in their own way, though, whether Seth’s first introducing the holiday in season 1, Lindsay’s true family tree is coming out at the world’s most awkward Christmas dinner in season 2, or Ryan and Taylor are trying to put the Cohens back together in a world where they don’t exist (or were born the wrong gender) in season 4. (The O.C. Mix 3: Have a Very Merry Chrismukkah is a staple in my Christmas playlist, too.)
6. How I Met Your Mother – “How Lily Stole Christmas,” “Little Minnesota,” “False Positive,” “Symphony of Illumination”
How I Met Your Mother has turned out nearly as many Christmas episodes as it has seasons and they’re all worth watching at this time of year. “How Lily Stole Christmas” is funny and sweet and it explores Lily’s friendship with Ted, which doesn’t always get as much attention as either of their relationships with Marshall. “Little Minnesota” does this with Marshall and Robin, another little seen pairing and the primary reason I love the episode so. Last year’s “False Positive” and this year’s “Symphony of Illumination” have both explored the days after learning you’re pregnant and what that means both for those who want kids and those who don’t, as well as the roles your friends play in a moment of personal crisis. The two episodes took those stories in different directions, but they both did a great job with it. “False Positive” is also especially and exceptionally funny, and the home of Ted’s Christmas-Themed Movie Snack.
7. Doctor Who – the Christmas Specials
Before I started watching Doctor Who I never got new TV on my birthday. Times have changed, though, and now each year brings a new Christmas special like it’s a birthday present just for me. And with only one exception (*cough*”The Next Doctor”*cough*), they’ve all been pretty incredible. Just think of that moment when the Tenth Doctor steps out of the TARDIS at the end of “The Christmas Invasion,” awakened by spilled tea and ready to save the world (again and also for the first time). He’s tasting blood and quoting The Lion King and having a sword-fight on the ledge of a spaceship over London and it’s fantastic. Or think about loud, brilliant, loud Donna’s introduction in “The Runaway Bride.” Or Astrid’s fate in “The Voyage of the Damned.” Or the Tenth Doctor’s heartbreaking swan song in “The End of Time.” Or the way “A Christmas Carol” plays with sharks and stories and the ways time can be rewritten. Even “The Next Doctor” isn’t terrible, it just doesn’t live up to my expectations after so many other great Christmas specials.
8. The Office (US) – “Christmas Party,” “A Benihana Christmas,” “Classy Christmas”
The US version of The Office has turned out 5 Christmas episodes in 8 years, and while they’ve all had their moments I’d say these three are the best of the bunch. “Christmas Party” is both hilarious–Michael turning Secret Santa into Yankee Swap–and heart-wrenching–Jim trying to make sure Pam gets the present he’s probably been planning for years. “A Benihana Christmas” pits the Party Planning Committee against the Committee to Plan Parties and finally unites Karen and Pam as friends (however briefly). And “Classy Christmas” is a brilliant study in psychological torture.
9. The West Wing – “In Excelsis Deo,” “Noël,” “Holy Night”
Aaron Sorkin’s sentimental side works well in Christmas episodes, where a certain amount of sentimentality is to be expected. It’s been awhile since I saw any of these episodes of The West Wing, but images from them stand out, whether it’s Toby and Mrs. Landingham at the funeral in “In Excelsis Deo” or Leo telling Josh the story of the man in the hole in “Noël” or Danny, in his Santa disguise, kissing CJ in front of the rest of the press in “Holy Night,” these episodes work because, at least on TV, Christmas is a time when you can get away with a little extra sentiment. (I can’t remember which of these episodes featured the Whiffenpoofs performing “O Holy Night”–probably “Holy Night”–but it’s lovely. And there’s a gorgeous instrumental version in the Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip episode “The Christmas Show.”)
10. Parks & Recreation – “Christmas Scandal,” “Citizen Knope”
Parks & Recreation has done two Christmas episodes, both about Leslie having to step back from her job in the Parks department. In “Christmas Scandal” she gets pulled into a local sex scandal and has to fight to salvage her reputation and in “Citizen Knope” she is dealing with the repercussions of an actual sex scandal, though one on a much smaller scale. And in both episodes the rest of the Parks department comes together to show their appreciation for everything it is that Leslie does for them, whether that’s taking on an outrageous list of tasks that keep things running smoothly or just giving the absolute best Christmas presents. The episodes are really about how much she means to her Parks Department family and that’s where they get their holiday spirit. They’re also both hilarious.