Holiday episodes are rarely a show’s best, but they’re often the most enduring. CBS still airs a colorized version of the “I Love Lucy” Christmas episode, repackaged as a perennial special, 60 years later. The image of The Fonz eating out of a can, alone on Christmas Eve, is probably one of the best-remembered scenes from “Happy Days.” And “The West Wing’s” 1999 episode “In Excelsis Deo” not only won an Emmy, but its takes on homeless veterans and hate crimes are just as relevant today, nearly two decades later. And of course, it was a Christmas episode that launched the longest-running scripted series in primetime, “The Simpsons,” all the way back in 1989.
As the networks more wholeheartedly embrace the holidays as a marketing tool, there has been an explosion in Christmas-themed movies and specials in recent years. But there’s still something special about celebrating the holidays with characters you’ve grown to know over the course of several episodes or seasons of a TV show. IndieWire has compiled the most memorable holiday episodes from the 21st century — which means, sadly, no Fonz, but plenty of other modern classics.
20. “Raising Hope,” Season 2, Episode 10 – “It’s a Hopeful Life”
“It’s A Wonderful Life” is a classic holiday tale but also (when you think about it) an incredibly dark one, and the underrated Fox sitcom “Raising Hope” illustrated that beautifully with its second season Christmas installment, in which Jimmy (Lucas Neff) drunkenly wishes that his baby daughter Hope had never been born. The consequences of that wish prove to be extremely dramatic, bordering on insane, but the ultimate conclusion results in reaffirming just what made “Hope” such a special show.
19. “How I Met Your Mother,” Season 2, Episode 11 – “How Lily Stole Christmas”
“How Lily Stole Christmas” represents a pretty impressive accomplishment for broadcast television — blending heartfelt holiday cheer with a storyline about Lily (Alyson Hannigan) getting mad at Ted (Josh Radnor) for calling her a “grinch” (not the actual word he used) after she and Marshall (Jason Segel) broke up. “HIMYM’s” signature wordplay and nimbleness with manipulating reality also gave the show an opportunity to dig into one of the show’s less-explored relationships, proving that at the height of its powers, this was a series which could delight on many levels.
18. “The Simpsons,” Season 23, Episode 9 – “Holidays of Future Passed”
Christmas has always been a big part of “The Simpsons” DNA — in fact, as mentioned previously, its very first full episode (following its debut as shorts on “The Tracey Ullman Show”) was the 1989 “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire.” But from the opening moments of the 2011 “Simpsons” holiday special, it was clear that the producers had found a new approach that paid huge dividends in terms of jokes. By blending the show’s interest in the not-too-distant-future lives of its characters with some attempt at Christmas cheer, it’s an episode that invokes the best of the series’ qualities.
17. “Downton Abbey,” Season 2, Episode 9 – “Christmas at Downton Abbey”
In the series’ first Christmas special, certain story arcs are still drawn out, such as the Bateses’ interminable string of bad luck and Lady Sybil’s rebellious marriage to a commoner. But what makes this episode so essential is that it finally brings together Lady Mary and Matthew.
Although the show has delivered its share of melodrama and has kept the two apart in various contrived ways that include a fiancee who eventually dies of the Spanish flu, a suitor who tries to force Mary into marriage, and an ill-advised fling that doesn’t end in le petite mort but an actual death, Matthew and Mary carry the heart of the show. The proposal as snow falls, and Matthew finally being able to break through the Mary’s icy exteriors is nothing short of a Christmas miracle.
16. “Gilmore Girls,” Season 5, Episode 11 – “Women of Questionable Morals”
Most of the plots involving Christopher are the worst, but in this episode, his presence serves to highlight the issue of how Lorelai is torn between the responsibility to the father of her daughter and the man who truly understands her, Luke. This romantic storyline is balanced by the ever-present family tensions (Christopher and Rory are at odds, Richard and Emily are united temporarily by a scruffy dog), and always reliable Stars Hollow shenanigans, with Kurt portraying a Revolutionary War-era whore. And then the show circles back to its heart when Luke, determined to revive Lorelai’s love of snow, builds a mini ice rink for her. It’s yet another sign that those two crazy kids are going to make it.
15. “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” Season 6, Episode 13 – “A Very Sunny Christmas”
It wouldn’t be a “Sunny” Christmas without an absolutely abominable person. After all, the gang at Paddy’s pub has always consisted of vengeful, contemptible people, so learning that Frank (Danny DeVito) started a Christmas tradition of buying his children their dream gifts only to keep them for himself both fed into that notion and helped explain how Dennis (Glenn Howerton) and Dee (Kaitlin Olson) became who they are today.
That’s not the only problematic tradition, though. It turns out Mac’s (Rob McElhenney) family broke into people’s homes to steal what was under their trees, and Charlie (Charlie Day) only got presents each year because his mom prostituted herself to earn gifts for her son. It’s not all downside, though: Mac and Charlie learn the truth. Dennis and Dee teach Frank a lesson. Frank ignores the lesson, but a vision he has — via claymation (see above) — motivates him to buy them all the presents they want.
But it’s not anyone in the gang who proves to be the ultimate Grinch. “A Very Sunny Christmas” actually motivates change for the better in its less-than-fabulous fivesome — motivation for the wrong reasons, but in the right direction nonetheless. There are classic scenes (Frank crawling naked out of a couch) and clever Christmas themes (“White Christmas” is well-utilized). Its ending, however, cements the series as an evisceration of a type of people, not just these specific bar owners. “Merry Christmas, bitches.”
14. “Veronica Mars,” Season 1, Episode 10 – “An Echolls Family Christmas”
One of the series’ best episodes, the dual Mars investigations allows father and daughter to shine, while intersecting in fun ways as their cases overlap. While Keith looks into a possible stalker for Logan’s dad, Aaron Echolls, Veronica needs to get to the bottom of who stole Logan’s poker money.
The episode accomplishes many things seamlessly: providing a satisfying procedural ending as Veronica shows off her badass deduction skills, balancing lighthearted humor with sordid dealings, turning the conventions of the family holiday on its head, and setting up a killer cliffhanger for the midseason finale. It’s just a great hour of television that also works as a standalone episode, despite that crazy ending.