The best Christmas-themed TV episodes

While Christmas films often receive mountains of praise during the holiday season, too often, its counterpart, the Christmas TV episode, is forgotten. So, if you’d like to see what some of your favourite characters are up to this year, here’s my guide to the best Christmas TV episodes on offer.

For the sake of efficiency, I’ll only be recommending one episode per series (despite the fact that so many of them have several excellent episodes to choose from).
 

The Vicar of Dibley

‘The Christmas Lunch Incident’ (special, 1996)

The premise is simple, yet effective: Geraldine (the Vicar) is invited to four separate celebrations on Christmas Day and must eat a generous lunch or dinner at each one. Featuring an always hilarious supporting cast, this episode is a classic of the series.  
 

Seinfeld

‘The Strike’ (season 9, episode 10)

This is the episode spawned ‘Festivus’ (“for the rest of us!”), Frank Costanza’s made-up holiday that substitutes the usual commercialised cheer of Christmas with an aluminium pole for a tree, the “airing of grievances” over lunch, and the “feats of strength” competition, which sees Frank challenge George to a scrimmage to close out the holiday. The idea is adapted from the experience of writer Dan O’Keefe, who based it on his father’s own invented celebration. It’s a must watch in my books.
 

Malcolm in the Middle

‘Hal’s Christmas Gift’ (season 6, episode 6)

Malcolm in the Middle is a series that mastered the art of the Christmas episode like few others, and ‘Hal’s Christmas Gift’ is testament to this. Completely skint, Hal and Lois (the parents) decide that this year will be a “homemade Christmas”. However, when the boys deliver up incredible gifts, Hal panics and improvises accordingly. The episode also features a hilarious altercation in a supermarket car park between Lois and a fellow shopper.

Other episodes to check out: ‘Christmas’ (season 3, episode 7); ‘Christmas Trees’ (season 5, episode 7).
 

30 Rock

‘Christmas Attack Zone’ (season 5, episode 10)

Much like Malcolm in the Middle, 30 Rock is a series that simply has no bad Christmas episodes. In fact, I’d go so far as to say every single one is brilliant. However, ‘Christmas Attack Zone’ has that gang’s-all-together feeling that really elevates it a notch above. Jack Donaghy’s mother, Colleen (the excellent Elaine Stritch), is visiting him for the holidays and discovers that he and Avery, his girlfriend, are expecting a child out of wedlock. Livid, Collen launches her “Christmas attack zone,” and before long, Jack, Liz, and the gang are ambushing each other from all directions.  

Other episodes to check out: ‘Ludachristmas’ (season 2, episode 9); ‘Christmas Special’ (season three, episode 6); ‘Secret Santa’ (season 4, episode 8);
 

Friends

‘The One with the Routine’ (season 6, episode 10)

‘The One with the Routine’ takes place primarily on the set of 'Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin Eve', where Monica and Ross resurrect their infamous high school dance routine (timeless), while, back at Chandler and Monica’s apartment, Rachel, Phoebe and Chandler search for their Christmas presents. It’s a timeless Christmas episode in a pantheon of timeless Christmas episodes.

Other episodes to check out: ‘The One with Phoebe’s Dad’ (season 2, episode 9); ‘The One Where Rachel Quits’ (season 3, episode 10); ‘The One with the Holiday Armadillo’ (season 7, episode 10).
 

Black Mirror

‘White Christmas’ (season 2, episode 4)

In stark contrast to usual warmth and comfort of a Christmas TV episode, ‘White Christmas’ is Black Mirror’s dark take on the holiday season. Often considered to be the show’s best episode, it takes place at a remote, snowed-in outpost, where two men share a Christmas meal and swap disturbing anecdotes from the outside world.  
 

Gilmore Girls

‘The Bracebridge Dinner’ (season 2, episode 10)

There’s something about Gilmore Girls that sort of feels like Christmas all the time; its warm, cosy, and features an abundance of comfort food. ‘The Bracebridge Dinner’ is an amalgamation of all those things, as it sees Rory and Lorelai gather at the Dragonfly Inn (where Lorelai works) for a wintery, Christmas dinner with all their friends and favourite townies, as well as Richard and Emily, Lorelai’s parents. It features a horse-drawn carriage ride in the snow, the beginnings of a Rory-Dean-Jess love triangle, and some of the show’s most delightful exchanges between characters who you don’t normally get to see interact. It’s a true gem.
 

Modern Family

‘The Old Man and the Tree’ (season 5, episode 10)

While the show deteriorated towards its end, ‘The Old Man and the Tree’ is an example of Modern Family at its best. The episode sees Jay and Manny attempt to cut down their own Christmas tree (a masterpiece), while Gloria endures a visit from her mother, and Phil tries to achieve the goal he set himself the Christmas prior: to walk the equivalent of the length to Canada on his elliptical machine.

Other episodes to check out: ‘Undeck the Halls’ (season 1, episode 10); ‘Express Christmas’ (season 3, episode 10); ‘White Christmas’ (season 7, episode 9).
 

Downton Abbey

‘Christmas at Downton Abbey’ (season 2, episode 9)

In a (much beloved) series that often verges on the melodramatic (particularly in its later seasons), Downton Abbey’s Christmas specials are representative of what the show does best: family drama with heart. Here, the snowy backdrop, crackling fireplaces, and festive dinners more than deliver. What’s more, the episode features the long-awaited engagement of Matthew and Lady Mary, firmly securing this episode its number one spot.

Other episodes to check out: ‘A Journey to the Highlands’ (season 3, episode 8); ‘The London Season (season 4, episode 9); ‘A Moorland Holiday’ (season 5, episode 9); ‘The Finale’ (season 6, episode 9).
 

Arrested Development

‘Afternoon Delight’ (season 2, episode 6)

Arrested Development’s always had a tight grasp on what made it unlike any comedy series before or since: complex, absurd jokes and callbacks to minute details from seasons prior. ‘Afternoon Delight’ is an encapsulation of all these things. George Sr. is in the attic, George Michael is partaking in the annual Bluth tradition of rebuilding the frozen banana stand, and the rest of the gang are at the company Christmas party, which culminates in Michael and his underage niece Maeby performing a duet of the innuendo-laden song, ‘Afternoon Delight’.  

Other episodes to check out: ‘In God We Trust’ (season 1, episode 7).

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