The idea of a holiday episode is as old as TV itself, but it’s not always easy for a series to pull off. For every awesome “Treehouse of Horror” we get a sappy, contrived holiday storyline that offers nothing but a few cheap attempts at pulling on our heartstrings. There’s a fine line between touching and trite, but when writers get it right, they really get it right.
These holiday episodes span the gamut from Christmas to Halloween and everything in-between (hello, Festivus). They propel our favorite characters forward and offer us real insight into our own lives, be it reexamining the adolescent feeling of outgrowing trick or treating or trying our best to make a new home feel more familiar. Time to binge-watch these great episodes!
The Office, “Christmas Party”
The Office certainly had a number of iconic episodes, but the sixth season Christmas episode marked a pivotal point in the series. This episode was the beginning of Jim and Pam. Though the couple had been flirting for seasons, Pam finally realizes that Jim loves her after his Secret Santa gift. In the episode, Jim pulls Pam’s name in their office Secret Santa. He nervously tries to find her the perfect gift – a teapot with a heartfelt letter. Pam ends up trading the gift for an iPod, and Jim ends up sneaking the letter into her pocket instead. “Christmas Party” was nominated for two Primetime Emmy Awards and was the highest-rated episode of Season 2.
The Simpsons, “Treehouse of Horror V”
It’s hard to nail down which “Treehouse of Horror” episode is the most iconic, but “Treehouse of Horror V” is largely regarded as the best of the bunch by fans and critics alike. Every year for almost three decades, The Simpsons have aired a “Treehouse of Horror” Halloween special. These episodes, which err on the side of horror and supernatural sci-fi, are a welcomed break from the show’s typical content. They’re renowned for being over-the-top and ultra-violent, existing in a world far more surreal than your regular old Springfield. Each episode has its hallmarks, and fans always look out for the same things (like the scary names in the credits or the graveyard of canceled TV shows). While most of The Simpsons’ Halloween episodes feature some sort of horror or sci-fi film parody, “Treehouse of Horror V’s” cheeky nod to The Shining is impossible to overlook.
Lost, “The Constant”
It’s not often a sci-fi drama has a wildly important Christmas episode that doesn’t feel cheesy or cliché, but Lost manages to achieve the inconceivable. At the time this episode aired, Lost was just starting to get out of control (cue the polar bears, time travel and smoke monsters), but the episode uses this to its advantage. This is a story about time-travel and how it helps Desmond and Penny finally reunite. There is nothing more gutting that watching Penny cry on the phone in disbelief as she hears Desmond’s voice for the first time in nearly a decade. The Christmas tree behind her is just the icing on the cake, proving you don’t have to really emphasize the holidays to make an important, heart-warming holiday episode. “The Constant” is such a perfect slice of sci-fi TV that it almost lets us excuse the series’ finale.
The O.C., “The Best Chrismukkah Ever”
Alternative teens of the 2000s spent their holiday season swooning over Adam Brody’s nerdy-but-sensitive portrayal of Seth Cohen. “The Best Chrismukkah Ever” made us want to put Transatlanticism on the turntable and write LiveJournal O.C. fan-fiction more than ever. In the episode, Seth creates the holiday Chrismukkah to bring the faith of both of his parents together. It reflects the larger theme of the episode and the series as a whole: that no matter how fragmented, the Cohen-Atwood family can rely on each other. A large part of it focuses on Marissa’s drinking problem and the tension between Sandy and Caleb giving us enough melodrama to hold up against the rest of the season while still having some holiday cheer.
Freaks and Geeks, “Tricks and Treats”
Freaks and Geeks developed a cult following during its 18-episode run, and before it was tragically pulled from the air, it gifted us with an iconic Halloween episode. Halloween episodes are rare to come by, and it’s exceedingly rare that one has as much heart as “Tricks and Treats.” While a lot of the episode focuses on Bill, Neal, Sam and Harris trick or treating, the most heartwarming bit revolves around Lindsay. Early in the episode, Lindsay ditches her mom after promising to stay home and hand out candy but soon realizes the error of her ways. There’s something really tear-jerking about watching Lindsay share candy with her mom in a Prince costume. It was incredibly human and the episode captured the truly adolescent feeling of grappling with oncoming adulthood when you’re nearly too old to trick or treat.
Few TV shows do holiday-themed episodes as well as Roseanne. While “White Trash Christmas” is certainly a contender, the series’ first Halloween episode lets Roseanne’s particular brand of comedy truly shine. Roseanne was a pioneer of Halloween episodes. Before the show aired, most networks would opt for Christmas and Thanksgiving specials while completely overlooking Halloween. Even The Simpson’s didn’t jump on board until a year after Roseanne Barr aired her 1989 special. From Roseanne’s scare-a-thon with Dan to the DIY Castle of Horror, “Boo!” explores the best parts of Halloween in suburban America. The ’80s were truly a simpler time.
How I Met Your Mother, “Slapsgiving”
The best part of How I Met Your Mother is how it manages to drag out in-jokes for seasons. Though the idea of a slap bet spawned in Season 2 when Barney lost a bet against Marshall, “Slapsgiving” launched the joke into infamy. In the Season 2 episode “Slap Bet,” Barney opted to receive five slaps over a period of time rather than 10 slaps right then and there. Because of his choice, the slap bet lasted for a whopping eight seasons, and was reintroduced every year through a Thanksgiving-themed episode.
In the initial Thanksgiving episode, Marshall renames Thanksgiving to Slapsgiving while torturing Barney with the looming threat of an unexpected slap. He even sets up a slap countdown clock which pushes Barney over the edge. Though the end of the episode sees just a single slap, “Slapsgiving 2: Revenge of the Slap” and “Slapsgiving 3: Slappointment in Slapmarra” continue the fun. Each Slapsgiving episode further reinforces the idea that in your late ’20s and early ’30s, friends are your family and sometimes torturing your family with a harmless gag is really, really satisfying.
My So-Called Life, “So Called Angels”
My So-Called Life may have only lasted a single season but the family drama became revolutionary for how the teenage experience was portrayed on television. The Christmas episode is one of the most gut-wrenching of the series. In it, Brian must deal with celebrating Christmas alone which is sad in itself but it gets even more depressing. After a fight with his abusive uncle, Rickie becomes homeless. Angela tries to help him, which causes a rift between her and her mother. She’s aided by a mysterious homeless girl who happens to be an angel in what’s one of the most ’90s cameos in TV history. The angel is played by Juliana Hatfield – frequent Lemonheads collaborator and solo artist.
Hey Arnold, “Arnold’s Christmas”
“Arnold’s Christmas” was Hey Arnold!’s first Christmas special and was particularly heartwarming for a cartoon. In the episode, Arnold tries to find the ultimate Christmas gift for Mr. Hyunh after pulling his name from the boarding house’s Secret Santa. It’s no secret that Mr. Hyunh is painfully lonely throughout the series, so Arnold ultimately ends up trying reunite him with his long-lost daughter. Arnold and Gerald have a difficult time tracking down any information about Mr. Hyunh and end up making a deal with Mr. Baily, the city archivist. They do all of his Christmas shopping, but fall short of a single item, the sold-out Nancy Spumoni snow boots. Helga ends up pulling through behind Arnold’s back and gives her brand new pair to Mr. Bailey while convincing him to search through the city records.
What’s most biting about this episode is that Arnold mostly sees Helga as a bully – that’s how she’s portrayed throughout the entire series. He never finds out about what she did to help reunite Mr. Hyunh with his daughter. This is one episode that’s truly about the spirit of giving, and since has become a fan favorite.
Bob’s Burgers, “Turkey in a Can”
Bob’s Burgers has always had a knack for holiday episodes, but “Turkey in a Can” seems to exemplify everything we love about the Belcher family. The episode focuses on Bob’s unyielding desire to create the best possible memories for his family. For him, this means an all-American, turkey dinner on Thanksgiving. The only problem is that Bob’s turkey keeps ending up in the toilet before he gets a chance to finish the meal. This episode is one of the many that show the true, unconditional love the Belcher family share, no matter how strange or dire the situation.
Scrubs, “My Own Personal Jesus”
For all the people arguing about Starbucks removing Christmas-related imagery from their holiday cups, this Scrubs holiday special is for you. “My Own Personal Jesus” puts the Christianity back into Christmas and highlights the overdone capitalist traditions that make the holiday lose meaning. This faith-focused episode may not be everyone’s cup of tea (or church wine) but it’s hard to ignore the fact that it conquers an often over-looked topic on major network television. The episode focuses Turk’s very serious struggle with faith after a brutal night shift, but it’s not without its fair share of humor. There’s an epic black-and-white scene reminiscent of a Public Service Announcement that opens our eyes to the ugly truth of childbirth.
It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, “Who Got Dee Pregnant?”
The humor on It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia is not lost on Halloween, and uses a costume party as a major punchline. The episode functions as a whodunit, but instead of finding a villain or masked-murderer like you’d expect from a Halloween-themed episode, we’re looking for Dee’s baby daddy. Dee suspects that one of the boys impregnated her during Paddy Pub’s Halloween party, and because of the costumes and the sheer amount of alcohol she consumed, she doesn’t know which one of them actually did it. The gang spends the episode recounting their fuzzy, drunken memories to figure out who could have done the unthinkable while Dee slowly becomes more and more bird-like (a clear nod to the sci-fi classic, The Fly).
The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, “Deck the Halls”
Will’s first Christmas in the rich California suburb certainly doesn’t disappoint. After moving all the way from Philadelphia, Will struggles to make himself feel at home. The Pennsylvania native may have swapped pine trees for palm trees, but he’s determined to make Christmas feel like Christmas and decides to show his cousin Ashley what the holiday is really about. He decorates the Banks’ home with decorations that aren’t approved by the Home Owners Association and the whole neighborhood comes out to protest. Eventually, Will is redeemed when neighborhood kids tell him he had the best Christmas decorations in the entire town and the Home Owners Association gives up, letting him keep is tacky decorations. The episode is as cheesy as it is heartwarming and everything you’d expect from a Fresh Prince holiday special.
Will and Grace, “Jingle Balls”
Jack’s storylines are largely underrated because he’s clearly cast as Will’s sassy sidekick, but in “Jingle Balls,” he finally gets one of the best storylines in the series. In the episode, Jack manages to land a job decorating the holiday windows at Barneys (one of the most coveted design jobs in New York). Grace is rightly upset because she’s actually a designer who always dreamed of having this opportunity and Jack is…well, Jack. Of course, Jack massively messes up the window because he has no design experience, but when Grace overhears him praying to Santa, she takes it upon herself to fix it. Jack thinks Santa granted his prayers, and Grace never sets him straight. She manages to put jealousy aside and selflessly help her friend. Is any plotline more deserving of a Christmas special?
A Charlie Brown Christmas
This 30-minute short aired in 1965 and became one of the most iconic Christmas stories of all time. Charlie Brown finds himself deeply depressed and struggling to find meaning in Christmas. All of his friends pretty much ignore or make fun of him, and who could forget his tiny, pathetic Christmas tree. For 1965, this story is actually kind of dark for television, and the absence of the laugh track was revolutionary. A Charlie Brown Christmas has won both an Emmy and Peabody Award and has been annually broadcast in the United States during the holiday season since its release.
American Horror Story, “Halloween”
For American Horror Story, Halloween is the holy grail of holidays. It makes sense that the show’s first ever holiday-themed episode was so well-crafted it was nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award. Murder House is arguably the best season of the series, and the two-part Halloween episode finally reveals Tate’s harrowing backstory. Halloween is the one day a year the spirits in trapped in the Murder House can actually leave the property, so we finally get to see Tate and Violet on a real date. Unfortunately, Tate is harassed by the teenagers he killed when she shot up his school. Each character trapped in the house get to live out unfinished parts of their lives and we watch Moira visiting her mother at the hospital. It’s as touching and sad as it is disgusting and horrifying. Would we expect any less?
Rocko’s Modern Life, “Rocko’s Modern Christmas”
Rocko’s Modern Life became a cult-favorite among adults despite being marketed towards children. There’s something about its secretly raunchy humor and psychedelic animation that appeals to adult-senses, and the Christmas special shows us everything we love about the little Wallaby. In the special, Rocko invites everyone (including the Elves) over for Christmas dinner. Mr. Bighead is a straight-up Grinch and laughs over O-Towns misery during the snow storm. He becomes enraged when he notices Christmas decorations, and ruins Rocko’s party by spreading rumors about the Elves. Of course, Rocko and the gang manage to muster up enough Christmas spirit to salvage things. Sadly, our Christmas spirit is running out – this special is only available on VHS and has been all but lost forever.
Friends, “The One with all the Thanksgivings”
Friends has always been known for their Thanksgiving episodes. While “The One with the Football” should definitely be mentioned when it comes to the best of them, “The One with all the Thanksgivings” may be the most iconic. This episode features the infamous turkey scene –a scene which launched a thousand gifs. While Monica’s turkey head prank is definitely memorable, the episode isn’t all laughs. The gang reminisces about terrible Thanksgivings they’ve endured, like when Ross’ parents told him they were divorcing on Halloween or when Chandler ended up in the emergency room after accidentally severing his toe. We also get to see Ross and Chandler dressed up like members of Miami Vice, so there’s that.
Mad Men, “The Wheel”
“The Wheel” wasn’t only a touching holiday episode, but it was the gripping finale of Season One. The episode truly showcased Don Draper’s advertising skills with his Kodak Carousel slide projector pitch. We see a bit of vulnerability in his pitch which isn’t just rare, but it brings his boardroom members to tears. Don Draper’s pitch is loaded with photos of his picture perfect family, but underneath the surface, he’s essentially alone. His wife and kids are having Thanksgiving without him. He chose work, like he always does.
The theme of “The Wheel” is tried and true to the holiday specials that came before it. It focuses on the idea of family – both the kind you work with and the kind who are bound by blood. Plus, we get to see Peggy’s joy when she not only get a promotion but becomes a mother. Three snaps for Peggy!
Seinfeld, “The Strike”
It’s Festivus for the rest of us in Seinfeld’s Festivus-themed holiday episode. George Costanza’s made-up December 23 holiday celebrates some pretty important things: feats of strength and the airing of grievances, which the Seinfeld cast seem to have no difficulties doing. But Festivus is for all of us. It’s for every person who finds the Christmas holidays stifling. For many, Christmas is a time where you can’t say what you feel for fear of upsetting your vaguely racist uncle or ultra-conservative aunt. It’s a time when you have to grit your teeth if your mother asks when you’re finally going to meet a nice man and pretend your job is actually giving you solid benefits to avoid the constant nagging of your father. Festivus is cathartic, and this episode brought us that magic.