This time of year typically brings us a slew of holiday themed television and lots of list-y goodness celebrating the best in pop culture from the year that was. In an effort to combine these two end-of-year staples, I thought I’d compile my definitive list of the best holiday episodes EVER.
I’m sure I’ve overlooked a few classics. But pointing out the holes is half the fun of the list, right? So, let the countdown begin:
10. The O.C.: “The Best Chrismukkah Ever”
As I am myself the product of a Jewish father and a shiksa mother, I have to give credit to The O.C. for combining the best of Christmas and Hanukkah into one über-holiday. (It’s hard to go wrong when you’ve got both Jesus and Moses on your side.) The episode also features all the hallmarks of classic season one The O.C.: a love triangle, a Newport Beach party, a drunken Marissa Cooper… and a partridge in a pear tree.
9. A Very Brady Christmas (1988)
I admit this one may be a bit of a cheat, since it’s actually a made-for-TV movie. However, it did launch the short-lived “adult” series The Bradys, and so it makes the list. The family Brady reunites at the old homestead, but holiday cheer is low as all the kids are now dealing with grown-up problems. Greg and his wife can’t agree on where to spend the holidays; Peter is dating his female boss who (horror!) makes more money than him; Jan is having marital problems of her own; Bobby wants to be a racecar driver; Cindy is still tired of being treated like the baby; and former cheerleader Marcia somehow ended up married to an oaf named Wally. Even poor Alice is back with her old employers, having split with Sam the Butcher. But, in true Brady fashion, the family puts their problems aside and pulls together when Mike gets trapped inside a caved-in building. The whole thing is deliciously, unironically campy, but I challenge you not to choke up just a little bit when Mike emerges from the rubble as Carol and the kids sing “O Come All Ye Faithful”.
8. The Simpsons: “Grift of the Magi”
During the past 20 seasons there have been many a holiday-themed Simpsons episode—but only one that features an appearance by a wee, animated Gary Coleman as a toy factory security guard who tries to stop Lisa, Bart and Homer from destroying an evil toy called Funzo.
7. Buffy the Vampire Slayer: “Amends”
Angel—recently returned from a Hell dimension—is haunted by the ghosts of his murderous past. While trying to help him, Buffy encounters the First Evil (who we meet again as the big bad of season 7) and snow falls on Sunnydale after a poignant confrontation between the star (sun?) crossed lovers.
6. Frasier: “Merry Christmas, Mrs. Moskowitz”
A classic example of the kind of highbrow farce that was Frasier’s stock in trade. In order to not upset the mother of his latest girlfriend, Frasier pretends to be Jewish—meaning he has to frantically scramble to hide the Christmas ham, the tree and his brother Niles (the sublime David Hyde Pierce), who happens to be dressed as Jesus. Frasier and his father also attempt to have an emotional heart-to-heart, with disastrous results. “We never should have tried this, we’re not Jewish!”
5. The West Wing: “Noel”
Season one’s “In Excelisus Deo” is often held up as the gold standard of West Wing holiday epsiodes, but I’m always partial to a Josh Lyman-centric story, so I’m going with season two’s melancholic “Noel.” Still dealing with the fallout of the Rosslyn shooting, Leo calls in a psychiatrist (Adam Arkin) to help Josh come to terms with his post-traumatic stress disorder. The episode’s emotional climax is juxtaposed with a haunting performance by Yo-Yo Ma, and ends with a rather lovely moment in which Leo tells Josh, “as long as I got a job, you got a job.”
4. 30 Rock: “Ludachristmas”
Not wanting to spend the holiday with his irascible mother (hilariously played by Elaine Stritch), Jack attaches himself to Liz’s more wholesome family (including guest stars Buck Henry and Andy Richter, also hilarious). Meanwhile, over in the B plot, Tracy is forced into sobriety by a court-ordered alcohol monitoring device that threatens to put a damper on the annual “Ludachristmas” celebration, and Kenneth’s attempts to impart the true spirit of the holiday season leads to the group attempting to chop down the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree.
3. Seinfeld: “The Strike”
This episode did more than just create a pop culture buzzword; it invented an entirely new holiday. Frank Costanza introduced the world to Festivus (for the rest of us), a holiday that includes a celebratory aluminum pole, feats of strength and the all-important airing of grievances.
2. Veronica Mars: “An Echolls Family Christmas”
There’s not much comfort and joy in Neptune as Veronica is enlisted to find out who stole Weevil’s winnings in a high stakes poker game at the Echolls’ house. (“Annoy tiny blonde one, annoy like the wind!”) Meanwhile, Veronica’s P.I. dad tries to protect movie star Aaron Echolls (Harry Hamlin) from a stalker. Secrets are revealed and plots become twistier in one of the cleverest episodes of the brilliant teen noir series.
1. The Office (UK): Christmas Special (Parts 1 & 2)
Before Jim and Pam, there was Tim and Dawn. The original BBC mockumentary about office drones at a paper company consisted of 12 perfect episodes of bone-dry British humor and concluded with a two-part Christmas special that gave its characters (and viewers) the happy ending they deserved. Tim and Dawn find love and even buffoonish, ex-boss David Brent finds a measure of redemption in a special that also stands as one of the best series finales of all time.