I’m actually surprised that Netflix doesn’t have a Christmas episode playlist by this point. So, I had to do some research, by which I mean I had to watch a bunch of sitcom Christmas episodes on the various streaming services, so I could report to you the best of the bunch. The only rule is only one episode per show; a number of the shows listed below have multiple great Christmas/holiday-themed episodes, but it didn’t seem fair to just have a list of eight Simpsons episodes, so. I thought about ranking them, but too many of these would just be tied for second place. So, consider everything tied for second place behind one clear winner. Availability as noted is not inclusive: I just assume everybody subscribes to Netflix at the bare minimum.
1. New Girl – The 23rd
Even if it were just for the skillfully and awkwardly delivered line “Sandalwood, always up to no good,” this episode easily makes the list. It’s the first truly great episode of New Girl, and honestly may be the only reason I started watching the show. And its ending is one of the strongest and emotional Christmas moments on the list. Available on Netflix.
2. That 70s Show – The Christmas Party
I’ve been recently binge-watching (ugh) this underrated sitcom, and had to go back to the first season today for this one, in which Hyde gives Donna the best present, Eric chops down a tree on the side of the highway because he spent the tree money on beer. There are some other great Christmas episodes throughout the series’ run, but none quite reach this episode’s heights. Available on Netflix.
3. South Park – Woodland Critter Christmas
Take three parts of the darkest humor, add one part murderous cute animals and two parts anti-Christ, and you’ve got this terrific subversive treat from the South Park guys. Sure, they’ve excelled over the years with great Christmas-themed fare (hell the short that started it all was probably the best thing my 17-year old self had ever seen before), but this one of the best of the crop so far. Available on Hulu.
4. The Office – Christmas Party
The Office had a number of great Christmas episodes (and, yes, I did watch them all last night), but this one right at the series’ high water mark smack in the middle of the second season is the best. A petulant Michael changes the rules of the secret Santa because he’s unhappy with how it’s going, which is just exactly what he would do. Available on Netflix.
5. 30 Rock – Ludachristmas
Another series that excelled when it had a chance to do Christmas episodes (NBC’s scheduling disasters left a few seasons without one), this episode from the first season is just a terrific Christmas half-hour. The role of Linus being taken by Kenneth, who preaches Christmas straight from the Bible to a cast and crew just looking for a great party is almost as great as the third-world children smashing their presents. And Elaine Stritch is a fucking national treasure. Available on Netflix.
6. How I Met Your Mother – How Lily Stole Christmas
Look, yes, the series finale ruined this entire show for me. Well, that much of the show that hadn’t been ruined by the canned laughter. But, look, this send-off to How the Grinch Stole Christmas is great. I just put this episode on again, and well, Ted’s a little less terrible than he usually is, the humor is on point, and the story is sweet but not sickening. Plus, Staten Island. Available on Netflix.
7. Scrubs – My Own Personal Jesus
Scrubs never shies away from its emotional territory, and of course this one is no different. JD loses his holiday spirit, followed by Turk, and finally we get to the best part of the episode set to on of the greatest songs ever written (Nina Simone’s Sinnerman), and everything is great again. Available on Netflix.
8. Friends – The One with the Holiday Armadillo
Yeah, I picked an episode of Friends. So what. The worst character dresses up as an armadillo. Available on Netflix.
9. Seinfeld – The Strike
When one of the best episodes of one of the best sitcoms of all time is a holiday episode, it makes the list. Look, this is the episode that popularized Festivus for the rest of us. Plus, it explains why Kramer doesn’t seem to have a job, and brought us the two-face. And how did I not remember it was in the ninth and final season? Available on Hulu.
10. Community – Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas
Community was an audacious series, and this episode was audacious for the series. Powered by stop-motion animation in homage to Christmas specials of years past, the episode goes right into Abed’s head to explore his feelings over the loss of his mother. And there may not be any better explanation of the meaning of Christmas than “The meaning of Christmas is the idea that Christmas has meaning. And it can mean whatever we want.” Available on Hulu.
11. Arrested Development – Afternoon Delight
Although Arrested Development (seasons 1-3) may have been the perfect sitcom, it does sort of lose some magic when watching episodes out of order or discretely. But, you know what? Just the sight of a man and his niece innocently singing Afternoon Delight at an office Christmas party more than makes up for it. Available on Netflix.
12. Parks and Recreation – Citizen Knope
This was a hard one, because the Parks and Rec crew produced a number of great Christmas episodes. But, since this is a sitcom list and not just a TV show list, I couldn’t include West Wing’s In Excelsis Deo, so we get this one instead. Of course Leslie gives out the best Christmas presidents, but the real magic is in the present her friends get her in the closing moments. Try and keep a straight face when April says, “These are the Black Eyed Peas, and I finally killed them.” Or, ten seconds later when Ron tells the camera what Leslie got him. But, if for some reason you don’t want to watch this one, “Ron and Diane” is also really good. Available on Netflix.
13. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air – Deck the Halls
Unfortunately, the Fresh Prince is not available on any of the streaming services without buying episodes. But, the show does seem to be on cable pretty much all day and night, so if you see this episode playing, definitely watch it. It features a still fish-out-of-water Will trying to bestow on Ashley the Christmas spirit despite the blandness of the rich suburbs.
Now, finally, the number one perfect (recent) Christmas episode:
The Simpsons – Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire
Sure the Simpsons pretty much air a great Christmas episode every year, up to and pretty much including this year, 26 years after this episode. Despite it not being the pilot, Fox aired this episode first, and a month before the series really began, and gave us an even better introduction to the world of Springfield and America’s new first family. It may have been the first truly subversive Christmas special on television, but it declared the Christmas message for those of us who couldn’t stand Linus reciting the Gospel of Luke yet one more time. And you know what, you try and keep your eyes dry when Homer says of their new dog, Santa’s Little Helper, “But he’s a loser. He’s pathetic. He’s…a Simpson.”
Sadly, only available on FXNow, but if you have a cable subscription, chances are you have access.