It’s a Christmas tradition for almost every great television series to end the calendar year with a Christmas episode. When done right, this segment can become a classic that brings joy to the holiday season. Whether they are completely original or variations on themes involving Santa Claus, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Ebenezer Scrooge or some other staple, fans of these shows can hold such episodes in their hearts forever. Our photo gallery looks back on the 20 greatest Christmas episodes, ranked best to worst, from such shows as “Happy Days,” “The Brady Bunch,” “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” “Seinfeld,” “Saturday Night Live,” “The Office,” “Late Night with David Letterman” and more.
1. Seinfeld – “The Strike” (1997)
Leave it to Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David for our #1 slot! What other show could create its own holiday? Well, actually Festivus was created by Frank Costanza (Jerry Stiller) and features the “airing of grievances” and “feats of strength.” He celebrates each December 23 with a bare aluminum pole. It’s a “Festivus for the Rest of Us”!
2. Happy Days – “Guess Who’s Coming to Christmas” (1974)
This one is sad yet sweet and launched a TV icon into the hearts of America. When Richie (Ron Howard) discovers Fonzie (Henry Winkler) is going to be alone for Christmas, he invites him over to celebrate with his family. Fonzie is reluctant and even lies that he is going out of town. While Howard (Tom Bosley) doesn’t really want him there, the ending is wonderful as all of them accept him.
3. The Brady Bunch – “The Voice of Christmas” (1969)
Carol (Florence Henderson) has laryngitis and will not be able to sing at church for the Christmas service. Cindy asks Santa at the local department store for no toys but to give back her mother’s voice.
4. The Office – “Christmas Party” (2005)
For the office’s “Yankee Swap” Christmas party, Jim (John Krasinski) puts in much effort to choose a teapot for potential girlfriend Pam (Jenna Fischer). Michael (Steve Carell) has the hot item when he buys an iPod for Ryan (B.J. Novak).
5. The Mary Tyler Moore Show – “Christmas and the Hard-Luck Kid” (1970)
Mary (Mary Tyler Moore) is planning on a drive back home for Christmas but is talked into being the crew member on duty by a co-worker. Watching her dance in the newsroom and then the guys (Ed Asner, Ted Knight, Gavin MacLeod) showing up late at night are gems.
6. Community – “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” (2010)
It’s hard to come up with something original at this point in TV history, but leave it to the creative minds of this show to produce a stop motion episode. The entire cast is animated and transported to a Christmas-themed planet where they must find the meaning of the holiday. It’s snarky and sweet at the same time.
7. David Letterman – Annual Christmas Episodes (1986-2014)
Over almost 30 years on both of his NBC and CBS late night shows, David Letterman would always welcome Darlene Love for the Christmas episode. Each time she would create a classic holiday memory with her performance of “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home).”
8. The Andy Griffith Show – “The Christmas Story” (1960)
This show only needed one Christmas episode to run each season because it was so good. A mean department store owner (Will Wright) wants a local man locked up in the jail. Andy (Andy Griffith) decides to prove a point and locks up the family as well. When the old man sees Andy and the gang celebrating Christmas at the jail, he gets the holiday spirit. Plus we get Barney Fife (Don Knotts) dressed as Santa.
9. M*A*S*H – “Death Takes a Holiday” (1980)
This is one of the darker episodes on our list but it’s also uplifting. Hawkeye (Alan Alda), B.J. (Mike Farrell) and Margaret (Loretta Swit) attempt to keep a mortally wounded solider alive until a minute after Christmas is over.
10. Saturday Night Live – “Alec Baldwin” (1998)
Of course there were several Christmas-themed sketches on this “SNL” episode, but none like the one that turned into a classic. Alec Baldwin plays candy maker Pete Schweddy visiting the NPR radio show “The Delicious Dish.” The hosting duo (Ana Gasteyer, Molly Shannon) is completely clueless about all of the double entendres.
11. The Dick Van Dyke Show – “The Alan Brady Show Presents” (1963)
It certainly wasn’t a typical episode of this smart comedy. Since Rob Petrie (Dick Van Dyke) worked for a variety show, it made complete sense that he and his co-workers, wife and son would appear on a musical-based Christmas episode for his boss Alan Brady (Carl Reiner). Toy soldiers, dance numbers, a little drummer boy, and Santa!
12. The Wonder Years – “Christmas” (1988)
This program always blended humor and tears with great effect. Kevin (Fred Savage) is trying to find Winnie (Danica McKellar) the perfect present. In the meantime, he and his brother hope to convince their father to buy a color TV.
13. Curb Your Enthusiasm – “Mary, Joseph and Larry” (2002)
Larry (Larry David) eats the nativity scene cookies he shouldn’t have eaten. He tries to get a replacement and winds up with a live nativity scene from a local church.
14. The West Wing – “Noel” (2001)
There are several strong Christmas episodes for this drama series, but this one makes our list. Co-workers are concerned about Josh (Bradley Whitford) and his mental stability. A psychotherapist (Adam Arkin) is brought in to help him. Plus Yo-Yo Ma performs for the Christmas party.
15. The Simpsons – “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire” (1989)
This episode began the entire “Simpsons” dynasty, and it’s odd for any series to begin with a Christmas show. Homer (Dan Castellaneta) is not getting a holiday bonus and decides to become a department store Santa. He bets money on a dog named Santa’s Little Helper, who eventually becomes the family’s pet.
16. The Twilight Zone – “The Night of the Meek” (1960)
On Christmas Eve, a down-and-out man dressed as a Santa Claus gets drunk and then gets fired. It’s got an uplifting ending, however, with a large sleigh led by reindeer.
17. WKRP in Cincinnati – “Jennifer’s Home for Christmas” (1979)
The whole staff thinks Jennifer (Loni Anderson) is going to be home alone for Christmas. Each one stops by her apartment with a tree, but they surprisingly find out she is flying off to Bethlehem for a “down home Christmas.”
18. Modern Family – “Express Christmas” (2011)
When the family members realize they will not all be together for Christmas, Phil (Ty Burrell) gives all of them assignments to complete for an emergency holiday. Of course, everything ends in disaster but they’re all brought closer together.
19. Laverne and Shirley – “Oh Hear the Angel’s Voices” (1976)
Where would be a better place to hold a Christmas celebration than a mental hospital. The girls (Penny Marshall, Cindy Williams) and the gang volunteer to put on a variety show at the local looney bin.
20. Little House on the Prairie – “Christmas at Plum Creek” (1974)
Christmas is all about secrets. Laura (Melissa Gilbert) wants to buy an expensive present for her mother. Mary (Melissa Sue Anderson) wants to make something for her father.