Naturally, when you think of Christmas-themed episodes of your favorite television series, you envision families gathering together to enjoy this joyous time of the year. Indeed, there are many. And then there are those fictional holiday celebrations, “Chrismukkah” and “Festivus,” that bring joy to the small screen (and great additions to our pop culture).
Of course, not every holiday celebration on TV is fa la la la la…at least in the beginning. But, by episode end, it is joy to the world small screen style. Even one classic science fiction series had a happy ending!
Since this listing is based on regularly scheduled TV series only, I had to exclude two of my favorite TV movies: The Homecoming: A Christmas Story in 1971 (which led to beloved family drama The Waltons) and A Very Brady Christmas, which in 1988 proved that we just could not get enough of that fictional clan named Brady. After all, how could you forget a film that featured a scene where Mama Carol (Florence Henderson) allows her now troubled adult daughter Jan (Eve) to have made-up sex with hubby (Philip Kuhlman) before coming downstairs for good ‘ol Alice’s (Ann B. Davis) flapjacks?
That aside, sit back, grab yourself a cup of holiday cheer, and enjoy this walk down Christmas and Hanukkah lane (and “Chrismukkah” and “Festivus” too). Ho, ho, ho! And Happy Holidays!
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11. thirtysomething (ABC – “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” December 15, 1987)
While Hope (Mel Harris) and Michael (Ken Olin) argue over whether to have a Christmas tree or a menorah, the logical solution, as in most interfaith marriages, is to celebrate both. By episode end, shiksa Hope lights the candle on the menorah and says the prayer on the first night of Hanukkah. Problem solved!
The bigger issue for Michael, however, is rectifying his shattered relationship with his cousin Melissa (Melanie Mayron), who he belittles in this episode just as a famous photographer takes interest in her work.
Interesting fact: While never a hit by the traditional Nielsen ratings, thirtysomething is one of the first TV series to demonstrate the importance of demographics (particularly the 18 to 49 category). ABC, in fact, was interested in a fifth season of the baby boomer drama, but the writers at the time felt they had run out of ideas for future storylines.
10. Eight Is Enough (ABC – “Yes Nicholas, There Is a Santa Claus,” December 14, 1977)
If you were a fan of The Waltons at the time, you might have wondered why Will Geer (Grandpa Walton) was suddenly playing another character on Eight Is Enough, who was stealing presents from the Bradford clan on Christmas Eve. The casting was, um, kind of peculiar. As Grandma Walton would say: “Good Lord!”
That aside, what sets this episode apart was the family’s first celebration without Bradford matriarch Joan (actress Diana Hyland passed away during that first abbreviated season). Particularly touching was middle son Tommy’s (Willie Aames) reaction to the gift his mother had bought him months before her passing.
Interesting fact: Betty Buckley was only 30 years old at the time when she replaced Diana Hyland as the family’s eventual new stepmother Abby. Laurie Walters, who played her new step-daughter Joanie, was six months older than her in real life. Buckley’s TV hubby, Dick Van Patten, was 19 years her senior.
9. Happy Days (ABC – “Guess Who’s Coming to Christmas?” December 17, 1974)
Henry Winkler as tough guy Arthur Fonzarelli (aka “Fonzie”) shows his softer side when Richie (Ron Howard) discovers he is spending the holidays alone. Richie invites the Fonz over under the pretext of needing him to fix the family’s mechanical Santa.
This season two episode was the first to center on the Fonzie character, who by season three moved into the apartment over the Cunningham’s garage when the sitcom shifted from single-camera to multi-camera in front of a studio audience. Aaayyy!!!
Interesting fact: This was the final episode to include Chuck (pictured with Fonzie above), the oldest Cunningham sibling. Following this installment, he was never mentioned again. Despite his short tenure on Happy Days, Chuck Cunningham was actually played by two actors: Gavan O’Herlihy in season one, and Randolph Roberts in season two.
8. The Jeffersons (CBS – “George Finds a Father,” December 20, 1978)
When George (Sherman Hemsley) finds his “Uncle Buddy” and invites him over to his “deluxe apartment in the sky” for a holiday celebration, he learns that this trusted family friend was also his late mother’s lover. “I did not know Mama was that kind of a woman,” angry George tells Buddy, who responds by slapping George on the face and walking out of the apartment. Before he leaves, George relents and hugs Buddy, as this perennial loudmouth shows his rare gentler side.
Interesting fact: Isabel Sanford was the first African American actress to win the Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series. She did so in 1981, besting Eileen Brennan (Taxi), Cathryn Damon (Soap), Katherine Helmond (Soap) and Lynn Redgrave (House Calls).
7. The Twilight Zone (CBS – “The Night of the Meek,” December 23, 1960)
On Christmas Eve, Henry Corwin (Art Carney), a down-and-out department store Santa, declares he would “like to see the meek the meek inherit the earth” after being fired for arriving as Santa drunk. Soon he is bestowed with a magical sack of gifts that automatically presents recipients with a present suited to them. Suspicious, however, the police pick up the gift sack and discover nothing more than empty cans and a cat.
After Corwin wishes he could dole out presents every year in the same manner, the episode concludes with the implication that Corwin has become the “real” Santa Claus, headed back to the North Pole.
Interesting fact: Art Carney played Santa Claus on two other occasions. The first, in 1970, was in The Muppets special, The Great Santa Claus Switch. And the second, in 1984, was in made-for television movie The Night They Saved Christmas. His wife, Mrs. Claus, in the latter was played by June Lockhart (who turns 95 in 2020).
6. Friends (NBC – “The One With the Holiday Armadillo,” December 14, 2000)
Laugh-wise, well, this wasn’t one of the funnier episode of Friends. But how could you not include David Schwimmer as the “Holiday Armadillo” on any best of christmas TV list?
Ross, of course, wants to surprise young son Ben, but he waits too long to find a Christmas suit. So, he comes up with this bizarre concoction to explain the meaning of Hanukkah to Ben. Chandler (Matthew Perry) appears as Santa Claus to help Ross. Then Joey (Matt LeBlanc) shows up in a Superman suit, also to assist.
Ben learns the story of the Maccabees, and then Superman, Santa, and the Holiday Armadillo gather around the tree. It’s a Christmas/Hanukkah celebration Friends style!
Interesting fact: Call it “The One With the Crossover”: Lisa Kudrow also had an ongoing role as a waitress named Ursula, Phoebe’s twin sister, on Mad About You. When Jamie (Helen Hunt) and Fran (Leila Kenzle) visit the Central Perk on Friends, they mistake Phoebe for Ursula.
5. Community (NBC – “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas,” December 9, 2010)
At lunch on the final day of classes, Abed (Danny Pudi) awakes to viewing the world in stop-motion animation. Naturally, the study group is worried about his mental health, but he decides this upcoming Christmas must be the most important and he and the gang must go on a journey to rediscover the meaning of the holiday.
Chock full of silly songs and clever dialogue in this unusual format, the underlying theme is friendship, as the group helps Abed through what they think is delusional behavior.
Interesting fact: Although Chevy Chase is remembered as placing Pierce Hawthorne, an earlier choice for the role was Sir Patrick Stewart.
4. Seinfeld (NBC – “The Strike,” December 18, 1997)
This fictional holiday celebration was created courtesy of Jerry Stiller as George’s (Jason Alexander) meshugenah (translation: cuckoo) father Frank Costanza. The name is “Festivus,” and it included in nutty Frank fashion a Festivus dinner, a Festivus pole, and Festivus “miracles.”
There was much more, however, to this holiday-themed episode including news of the end of a 12-year strike ending for Kramer (Michael Richards) at fictional H&H Bagels, and a new Seinfeld term: a “two-face” — a person who looks attractive sometimes, but other times looks bad.
Interesting fact: While not a spin-off from Seinfeld, Jerry Stiller as Arthur Spooner on long-running CBS sitcom The King of Queens was basically the same character as Frank Costanza. Stiller was planning on retiring after Seinfeld, but Kevin James told him that “he needed him to be on The King of Queens to have a successful show.
3. Everybody Loves Raymond (CBS – “The Toaster,” December 14, 1998)
When Ray (Ray Romano) gives Frank (Peter Boyle) and Marie (Doris Roberts) a subscription to a Fruit of the Month club in the pilot episode, we immediately learn that his kooky parents are difficult to please. But this time, for Christmas, Ray tried to be creative with a toaster engraved with his family’s names on it. But Frank and Marie decide to return the gift, unbeknown about the personalization, and chaos ensues at the store it came from.
Interesting fact: When Marie complains to Frank that she does not just want to be a trophy wife, Frank’s response (“What contest in hell did I win?”) remains in this viewer’s mind the funniest dialogue in the sitcom’s nine year run. Yet, it was not in the original script. According to Everybody Loves Raymond creator Phil Rosenthal, that line was added during rehearsals.
2. The O.C. (Fox – “Best Chrismukkah Ever,” December 3, 2003)
Teen angst, of course, was the centerpiece of Fox serialized drama The O.C, which in this episode featured Marissa (Mischa Barton) and Ryan (Ben McKenzie) arrested for shoplifting. But in this first season holiday episode, Seth (Adam Brody), the son of “a poor struggling Jewish father growing up in the Bronx” and a mother nicknamed “Waspy McWasp,” comes up with his own super holiday, Chrismukkah. And this fictional holiday is now both celebrated and firmly entrenched in our pop culture.
Interesting fact: Kelly Rowan is remembered for playing Kirsten Cohen on The O.C. She was 38 years old when the series began, which was only 14 years old than her 24-year old TV son Adam Brody.
1. The Mary Tyler Moore Show (CBS – “Christmas and the Hard-Luck Kid II,” December 19, 1970)
Mary (Mary Tyler Moore) and best friend Rhoda (Valerie Harper) have a festive holiday celebration planned together in Mary’s warm and cozy apartment. But after good ol’ Mary gets suckered into working on Christmas Eve, she finds herself alone in the office and terrified at the sound of the elevator coming up in her empty building. Alas, it is no burglar. It is Mr. Grant (Ed Asner), Murray (Gavin MacLeod) and Ted (Ted Knight) to bring some Christmas cheer, and a reminder that your friends can be your family too.
Interesting fact: Four years prior to this episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show was an installment of That Girl in 1966, starring Marlo Thomas, also titled “Christmas and the Hard Luck Kid” The Mary Tyler Moore Show creator James L. Brooks wrote both episodes.