For Thanksgiving, we tallied up the ten best Turkey Day Sitcom episodes, and there were a surprising number of good candidates — but the November holiday of gluttony has nothing on Christmas, the holiday for which it seems sitcoms were made. It’s the most wonderful time of the year, or so sang Andy Williams (probably in a special televised right after some of the sitcom episodes on this list), and TV embraced that to the utmost.
So while you’re wrapping presents, baking cookies, stringing popcorn and cranberries, or whatever Christmassy thing it is you do to prepare for the big day, check out these ten holiday episodes — because sappy sentimental sitcoms are one of the reasons for the season.
10. The Andy Griffith Show, “Christmas Story”
Aw, shucks. This season-one episode from 1960 is about as sappy as a syrup tree, but it still warms the holiday heart. Only in Mayberry would the best Christmas party in town be down at the courthouse, with Andy on guitar and the fancy china out and the pretty Miss Ellie serving punch. Heck, a cell at the Mayberry jail was a lot better than most current Denver apartments. But then, that's the benefit of a fictional America, right?
9. WKRP in Cincinnatti, “Bah, Humbug”
There have been a lot of sitcom takes on Dickens's A Christmas Carol, most notably the Odd Couple episode "Scrooge Takes an Oscar," which could have been on this list, too, were it longer than ten slots. But this 1980 WRKP episode does more than adapt and amuse; it reveals something about the characters and their pasts, but also manages to be a commentary on modern America...and offers good advice on not accepting homemade brownies from the office pothead.
8. Friends, “The One With the Holiday Armadillo”
Man, the end of the year was important to the '90s juggernaut that was Friends. Maybe it was because of the way they were trying to show how young adults were breaking away from their familial norms and still clinging to the traditions with which they grew up. Or maybe it was just crazy-popular to capitalize on Thanksgiving and Christmas. Either way, this Y2K episode is one of its best, with Ross trying to convince his rarely appearing son Ben (Ross was not the most attentive of dads, right?) that Hanukkah is just as awesome as Christmas, armadillo style. Seriously, if Jewish families everywhere didn't adopt a stuffed armadillo to help celebrate the holiday, they were missing out.
7. The Dick Van Dyke Show, “The Alan Brady Show Presents”
The classic ’60s-cool sitcom rarely marked the holidays, with this notable exception from 1963, when the fictitious Alan Brady (the star for which Rob Petrie served as head writer) asks the writing staff, their families and his producer to put on a show. Dubious setup, sure, but the payoff is charming and winning and total Mad Men-era showbiz, and makes you want to have a dinner party in your living room with all these lovely people.
6. The Jeffersons, “984 W. 124th St., Apt. 5C”
George Jefferson, when you got down to his core, was a stand-up guy (though as Florence would point out, it was tough to tell when Shorty was standing). And nothing proves the depth hidden behind George's swagger than this 1977 episode. When Weezie suspects that George is sneaking out to do who-knows-what in a not-great part of Harlem, she trails him...and finds out that he's been leaving gifts at the door of the low-rent apartment where he'd grown up, long before he became the successful dry-cleaner tycoon of NYC. It's a lovely Christmas card to 1970s New York, and a reminder that gratitude and generosity are two of the reasons we love this season.
5. The Simpsons, “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire”
The very first full episode of the now-venerable animated series (what we used to just call "cartoons," kids!) aired back in 1989, following a successful launch on the then-hit FOX series The Tracy Ullman Show.
The Simpsons themselves are a little less polished in this episode than they'd become over the ensuing decades, but the heart is still on full display. Bonus: This is the origin story of Santa's Little Helper (and the reason he has that name). If comic books have taught us anything, it's that origin stories are important...and the Bible agrees, as it's full of origin stories: Jesus, the Universe, etc. Full circle.
4. Newhart, “No Room at the Inn”
There were a lot of great Christmas episodes from the run of The Bob Newhart Show, but this 1982 entry from the Vermont-set series was the high point of a troubled first season. It's a familiar Bob Newhart trope: A bunch of weirdos are forced to spend the holiday together due to some unforeseen outside force — here, a Vermont snowstorm. It's all about TV tradition, kids, and seeing Bob Newhart's characteristic slow-burn as he realizes he's surrounded by idiots is one of the great gifts television history has to give us.
3. The Big Bang Theory, “The Bath Item Gift Hypothesis”
Something relatively new has to make the list, right? Not everything good was made back in the '60s and '70s and '80s — for example, this 2008 episode in which Penny gives Sheldon the best Christmas present he's ever gotten...and completely upsets his plan to return her gift with one of commensurate value. I know BBT gets a lot of flak — it's become popular in nerd culture to find it unfunny, for some reason — but the truth is that it wears its heart on its sleeve, which is exactly what the season demands.
2. Seinfeld, “The Strike”
What’s a December without Festivus? This 1997 late-series entry introduced America to one of the best Seinfeldisms in existence, right up there with “No soup for you!” and “Master of my domain” and “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.” After this episode aired, a lot of people (myself included) had Festivus parties, complete with aluminum pole, Feats of Strength and, of course, the traditional Airing of Grievances. Non-traditional, to be sure, but...seasonal. And just the tonic when you may have heard one too many carols at the end of a long day.
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1. The Mary Tyler Moore Show, “Christmas and the Hard-Luck Kid II”
If you want to appreciate the holidays, what they mean, and how the people in your life make it all worthwhile, then this 1970 episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show is the perfect Christmas present to yourself. It's full of heart and humor and just plain goodness (and, yes...spunk). By the way, the "II" in the episode title refers to another holiday episode of the same name — in the Marlo Thomas sitcom That Girl —that was also written by James Brooks.
Ah, trivia: the greatest gift of all. Merry Christmas.