The definitive ranking of the best Christmas TV episodes of all time
"It's Ireland's biggest lingerie section, I understand"
Christmas TV is going to be a little different this year. The Covid pandemic shut down a lot of TV production during the year, meaning the special episodes that are normally filmed earlier in the year didn't get made.
Plus, with every passing year, more and more people eschew linear TV for streaming services. The big Christmas film on BBC One doesn't have quite the same appeal if you've already watched it seven times on Netflix. The days of methodically going through the special Radio Times and circling the Christmas TV you need to see are sadly gone.
Still, Christmas TV remains a warm, nostalgic part of the festivities. Particularly Christmas specials. The holidays have traditionally been a time for sitcoms to release extended episodes or break from the traditional formats to give the viewer something special. So here is a list of the twelve greatest Christmas TV episodes of all time.
12: Father Ted – ‘A Christmassy Ted’
In truth, ‘A Christmassy Ted’ doesn’t really make much sense, and feels like several scripts squished together – why do the Golden Cleric awards seemingly take place on Christmas Day? But there are just so many great jokes and moments jammed in this double episode - from the largest lingerie store in Ireland, to the teamaker, to Dougal being terrified by The Love Bug – that you never have time to stop laughing and think about the logic of it all. (Wil Jones)
11: Only Fools and Horses - ‘Christmas Crackers’
Only Fools and Horses would become a Christmas juggernaut in the 1990s and early 2000s, with Del, Rodney and whichever elderly relative they were up to that point being wheeled out every year for some feature-length nostalgia. It went on far too long, and even most of the good Christmas episodes like ‘Heroes and Villains’ don't actually take place around the holidays.
But John Sullivan’s writing originally had a real working-class bite to it. And that’s on display in this episode, which was the final episode of the show’s very first series, back when it was still genuinely daring.
Focusing around Del Boy, Rodney and Grandad having a particularly bleak Christmas dinner, this is Christmas teetering on the breadline. There’s frequent mention of government cuts, and bleak sense of melancholy about absent relatives, both deceased and absconded. There’s arguments, wistful glances out of towerblock windows, and Christmas TV being used as an opiate. The second half of the episode, where Del and Rodney end up in a New Cross club, seems to be tacked on from a different unused script, but it doesn't ruin the impact of the opening scenes. (WJ)
10: Brooklyn Nine-Nine – ‘Yippie Kayak’
Brooklyn Nine-Nine (and Jake Parolta) finally get to do a Die Hard Christmas episode. Enough said. (WJ)
9: Community – ‘Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas’
Community was a show that played with the format of television nearly every episode, but the second season Christmas special ‘Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas’ was maybe the biggest stylistic swing the show ever took: a fully animated stop motion episode done in the style of classic festive specials like Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer.
For most shows, that gimmick would be enough – but not for Community, as the animation is revealed to be a projection of Abed’s anxiety at dealing with the break up of his family, and it also touches on what Christmas means if you are not Christian or religious at all. (WJ)
8: King of the Hill – ‘Pretty Pretty Dresses’
It is often said that Christmas can be a depressing time for many, so much so that it has actually become a cliché for ‘alternative’ Christmas songs or shows to depict the bleakness of it all.
But King of the Hill’s third season festive episode absolutely nails this feeling, in one of the darkest - but ultimately uplifting - Christmas episodes ever. Hank’s neighbour Bill had always been portrayed as a tragic loser, but this episode dived deep into his psyche, as he started to crack, believing he is ex-wife Lenore, and wearing her dresses around the house. It manages to both be gut-wrench, yet also quietly hilarious. (WJ)
7: Gavin and Stacey – ‘The Christmas Announcement’
The beauty of Gavin and Stacey is not the characters of Gavin and Stacey themselves, but in the chaos that occurs within the two families that they bring together. They are mostly-uninteresting characters who act as social glue for the eccentricities of Bryn, Nessa, Smithy and Pam to take centre stage.
The first Christmas special, aired in 2008, serves as the perfect platform for every character to be on top form. Pam’s lust for drama is satiated and then some, as Gavin’s bombshell news sparks a Christmas Eve row for the ages. The fishing trip secret is oh so nearly let out. Smithy’s relationship with Neil, the baby, takes another hit as Dave reveals he already owns a Cardiff City shirt. Pete’s mother sleeps behind the bar.
This episode is an hour of chaotic but beautifully constructed conflict, comedy and heartache. And it remains James Corden and Ruth Jones’ best work. (Reuben Pinder)
6: Knowing Me, Knowing You With Alan Partridge – ‘Knowing Me, Knowing Yule’
The light entertainment Christmas special is a format ripe for mocking, with everyone from Bill Murray to The Muppets and Lady Gaga having a stab at it in recent years. But there is no character more suited to naff television than Alan Partridge, whose career falls apart live from a mock-up up of his house in Norfolk.
The greatest moment comes though in a video package of Alan’s life in Norwich, where he ruminates on his fame whilst being let into defunct electronics chain Tandy out of hours and appreciating the mechanism of a CD hi-fi. (WJ)
5: Peep Show - ‘Seasonal Beatings’
While many Christmas specials focus on expressing the more joyous themes of Christmas, Peep Show encapsulates all the worst parts of Christmas: family rows, culinary panic, and faux enthusiasm towards bad presents. And it does so in such a way that makes you think, ‘Thank God we’re not them’. That is something you can always rely on with Peep Show - no matter how bad things get, you can safely bet Mark and Jeremy have it worse, through no-one’s fault but their own.
From the awkward stockings session (“If our feet touch, we fuck. Obviously.”) to Mark’s ‘no turkey’ rant to the eternal cauliflower debate, Seasonal Beatings is the perfect antidote to the saccharine Christmas TV that is ubiquitous at this time of year. (RP)
4: The Simpsons – ‘Marge Be Not Proud’
What made the classic era of The Simpsons so great wasn’t just that it was hilarious – it was that it told tightly plotted 22-minute stories that could that could really hit you emotionally. And arguably, there is no greater emotional ringer in the show’s 30 years than the seventh season’s Christmas episode.
The first holiday episode since the pilot, ‘Marge Be Not Proud’ is the one where Bart is caught stealing a video game from the mall and Marge finds herself unsure how to react. It ends on a shamelessly tear-jerking, heart-warming moment – but what Bart goes through in the lead-up is excruciating. The scene where he asks Milhouse’s mother if they can hang out and “do mom stuff” kills me every time. There are tons of Homer and Bart episodes, but this is one of the rare stories to nail Marge's relationship with her special little guy.
Just look at the ending, where Bart excitedly opens his present, and we think he is finally going to get the violent game he wants – only for it to be revealed to be boring-ass golf sim Lee Carvallo’s Putting Challenge. It’s a great punchline, but it is also so perfect. It is exactly the sort of terrible game your mum would get you. Only someone who truly loves you can get you a gift so, so close to what you want that also misses the mark so spectacularly. (WJ)
3: Inside No. 9 – ‘The 12 Days of Christine’
One thing I can't allow myself to do is spoil anything for the first-time viewer, so I won't go into too much detail. But I will say that watching 'The 12 Days of Christine' will enrich your life. It's important to note that this is a stand-alone episode, so don't worry if you're not familiar with the subversive genius of Inside No. 9.
In the broadest strokes possible, we follow Christine - or Chrissie - through various moments in her life. And by the end of the 29-minute duration, you'll be a sobbing mess. Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith have created a poignant masterpiece that is both incredibly clever and unashamedly sentimental, whilst the soulful Sheridan Smith is breathtaking in the titular role.
It is the single most affecting piece of British television since The Royle Family’s The Queen of Sheba. I cry every time. (Nooruddean Choudry)
2: The Royle Family – ‘Christmas Special (1999)’
And speaking of The Royle Family... Across the 12 episodes that preceded the first Christmas special, head of the family Jim is grumpy, lazy, tight-fisted and generally not very nice to his family.
But as a heavily pregnant Denise goes into labour on Christmas Day, all of Jim’s miserly shortcomings are forgiven, comforting his daughter who, like many faced with the life-changing prospect of raising a child, is terrified of the future.
“What if the baby doesn’t like me? What if I don’t like the baby?” Denise tearfully asks.
“Of course you’ll like it. You’ll love it. I remember the first time your mum put you in my arms, and I looked at you,” Jim replies.
“Oh God, you were beautiful. I knew then I’d do anything for you. Anything for you.” (Rich Cooper)
1: The Office – ‘Christmas Special’ Parts 1 & 2
Few have mastered the art of the Christmas special like Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant. The 12 regular episodes of The Office take the viewer on a journey of intolerable cringe, emotional anguish and uncontainable laughter. And while David Brent and Gareth Keenan dominate the screen throughout that time, there is a beautifully crafted, relatable romance brewing underneath.
The Christmas special is its crescendo and is flawless in its execution. It’s the sort of TV episode you avoid watching too often to preserve its value. But every Christmas Day, it deserves another airing. For Tim and Dawn. (RP)