The 31 Best Holiday Television Specials Ever Made

Everything from 'Charlie Brown' to 'The Muppets' for every day of December.

Recommended Video
Loading Video Content
ADVERTISEMENT

Every family celebrates the holiday season in its own, unique way. Some families obsess over the arrival of Santa Claus. Other families (mostly of the Jewish persuasion) spend Christmas Day enjoying a movie and Chinese food. But almost every American family sits down at some point to watch a holiday special. It’s almost inevitable and it is by no means a bad thing. Though the number of terrible Christmas episodes and specials climbs steeply on an annual basis, there are classics of the genre aired every year that are worth watching, rewatching, re-rewatching, and reciting by heart. Many networks (here’s looking at you TBS) embrace the back catalogue and help parents and kids do the same, bonding over nostalgia for franchises that have long since disappeared into TV Guide back issues. Tastes vary, but the best of the best can be, within reason, agreed upon.

Here is Fatherly‘s debatably definitive ranking of the best holiday television to air over — give or take a bit — the last half-century. These specials and episodes are all fairly easy to find because they are shown frequently or have a long YouTube half-life. All come thoroughly recommended.

31. A Claymation Christmas Celebration (CBS, 1987)

Co-hosted by Rex, an intellectual Tyrannosaurus Rex, and Herb, a dumb Styracosaurus, A Claymation Christmas Celebration features the duo singing carols and debating the meaning of the lyrics. Kids may like it better than adults, unless the adults have had some strong ‘nog.

30. Olive the Other Reindeer (Fox, 1999)

Olive (voiced by Drew Barrymore) is an anthropomorphic Jack Russell Terrier with big dreams. When a reindeer injury threatens to cancel Christmas, she steps up to the plate to save the day.

29. Dinosaurs – “Refrigerator Day” (CBS, 1991)

In the Dinosaurs-universe analogue to Christmas, the dinosaurs celebrate the invention of the fridge, which allowed them to store food instead of having to continually roam. Make no mistake though, Refrigerator Day is undoubtedly Christmas. The family swaps gifts, put up festive decorations, and sings carols, all in celebration of the glorious appliance.

Where to Stream: Amazon Prime, Hulu, Amazon Video

28. The Best Christmas Pageant Ever (ABC, 1983)

In this adaptation of the bestselling picture book by Barbara Robinson, a family invades church one Sunday and decides to take over the annual Christmas pageant. While the family is universally despised, they’re committed to making this year’s pageant the most unusual anyone’s ever seen.

27. Sesame Street – “Elmo Saves Christmas” (PBS, 1996)

In this Sesame Street special, Elmo uses a magic snow globe to wish that every day was Christmas, but Santa Claus and a reindeer-in-training named Lightning intervene to show him why that might not be the best idea.

Where to Stream: Amazon Prime

26. Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer (The WB, 2000)

Based on the song of the same name by Randy Brooks, the TV special tells the story of young Jake Spankenheimer, whose Grandma gets mowed down by Santa’s out-of-control sled. While Grandma recovers, money-grubbing do-badders plot to take over her store.

Where to Stream: Amazon Prime

25. The Office – “A Benihana Christmas” (NBC, 2006)

In this third season episode directed by Harold Ramis, a dejected Michael cheers up from a breakout by going to Benihana with Andy, Dwight, and Jim. Meanwhile, a feud among the office party planning committee creates two, competing Christmas parties.

Where to Stream: Netflix

24. Arrested Development – “Afternoon Delight” (Fox, 2004)

Gob gets humiliated at the Bluth Company annual Christmas party … and promptly stages mass firings. While Michael rebuilds the banana stand, Buster plays hooky from the army. Then several characters discover the titular song isn’t as family-friendly as it might seem. This one might not be the best for kids as it prompts some uncomfortable questions about the nature of adult and work relationships. Come on!

Where to Stream: Netflix, Hulu

23. Bob’s Burgers — “Christmas in the Car” (Fox, 2013)

When the Belcher’s Christmas tree dies on Christmas Eve, the family sets off to buy a new one, but inadvertently sparks a violent feud with an angry truck driver. It’s a terrifying, surreal episode that somehow manages to pull off a heartfelt ending. 

Where to Stream: Hulu

22. Futurama — “Xmas Story” (Fox, 1999)

Fry celebrates his first Christmas in the future, which has evolved into a holiday simply called Xmas in which a murderous, robotic Santa Claus hunts down the naughty after dark.

Where to Stream: Netflix, Hulu

21. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia – “A Very Sunny Christmas” (FX, 2010)

The Paddy’s gang becomes determined to rediscover the joy of Christmas. Dennis and Dee try to make Frank see the Christmas spirit of giving, while Mac and Charlie realize their childhood Christmases weren’t as joyous as they remember.

Where to Stream: Netflix, Hulu

20. South Park – “Mr. Hankey, the Christmas Poo” (Comedy Central, 1997)

In the first South Park episode of this list, and the first of the show’s many holiday specials, Kyle feels excluded from the town’s Christmas celebrations and is comforted by Mr. Hankey, a talking, singing piece of poo. Along with the titular feces, the episode also introduced the popular songs “A Lonely Jew on Christmas” and “Kyle’s Mom is a Big Fat Bitch.”

Where to Stream: Hulu

19. Christmas at Pee Wee’s Playhouse (CBS, 1988)

Pee-Wee Herman and pals celebrate Christmas in the Playhouse in their own creative ways, including a sleigh ride with Magic Johnson.

Where to Stream: Netflix

18. Friends – “The One with the Holiday Armadillo” (NBC, 2000)

Ross wants to teach his son about his Jewish heritage, so he invents a character based on the only outfit he can find: the Holiday Armadillo. Meanwhile, to entice Rachel to move back into their refurbished apartment, Pheobe tries to drive a wedge between Rachel and Joey, who she’s been staying with.

Where to Stream: Netflix

17. A Christmas Carol (TNT, 1999)

At this point in time, it feels as if there’ve been a million adaptations of Charlies Dickens’ holiday classic A Christmas Carol, all with their own merits. Being able to pick out the best of the bunch, therefore, relies on determining the strongest Scrooge. And while countless formidable actors from Kelsey Grammar to Jim Carrey have portrayed the cold-hearted miser, credit has to go to Patrick Stewart’s portrayal in TNT’s 1999 adaptation, which itself was inspired by a one-man stage show Stewart had previously performed. Beat that.

Where to Stream: Amazon Prime

16. South Park – “Woodland Critter Christmas” (Comedy Central, 2004)

Does South Park deserve two entries? We say yes. In this one, Stan discovers a group of talking animals in the woods, who enlist him to help birth their savior. Unfortunately, the woodland critters are Satan worshippers, and their savior is the Antichrist.

Where to Stream: Hulu

15. The Judy Garland Christmas Show (CBS, 1963)

Despite a short time on the air, The Judy Garland Show was beloved by audiences, especially her Christmas episode featuring guest appearances by Jack Jones, Liza Minnelli, and more. Garland herself said that she made the episode, which was filmed soon after John F. Kennedy’s assassination, as a way to cheer America up.

14. A Rugrats Chanukah (Nickelodeon, 1996)

In this required Hebrew School watching, the Rugrats babies learn the story of Chanukah from Tommy’s grandma. Later, they plot to escape from a synagogue nursey during its annual Chanukah play, while Tommy’s grandpa settles a feud with his childhood rival.

Where to Stream: Hulu

13. 30 Rock – “Ludachristmas” (NBC, 2007)

Liz Lemon’s family pays her a visit for the holidays, including her brother Mitch, whose amnesia causes him to believe he’s still stuck in 1985. Meanwhile, the cast and writers of TGS prepare for their annual Ludachristmas party, but a judge ruins Tracy’s plans by ordering him to wear an alcohol-monitoring ankle bracelet.

Where to Stream: Hulu

12. Community – “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” (NBC, 2010)

Community goes stop-motion when Abed transports the study group to his imaginary, Christmas-themed world, much to the group’s concern, in this heartfelt quest for meaning. 

Where to Stream: Hulu

11. The Simpsons – “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire” (Fox, 1989)

When people obnoxiously assert that “early Simpsons is better,” it’s usually shorthand for referring to “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire,” the series premiere and first of many great Christmas specials to follow. In the world’s introduction to the Simpsons, Homer discovers that he won’t be getting a holiday bonus, prompting him to go to the dog-racing track on Christmas Eve in hopes of earning some money for presents. While Homer loses his bet, the Simpsons family adopts an abandoned greyhound, Santa’s Little Helper.

Where to Stream: Hulu

10. A Muppet Family Christmas (ABC, 1987)

Fozzie Bear and the rest of the Muppet gang head up to his mother’s farm to celebrate Christmas. As the worst in 50 years approaches the area, the Muppets sing a medley of carols and swap presents.

Where to Stream: HBO GO

9. The Twilight Zone – “The Night of the Meek” (CBS, 1960)

A local drunk working as a department store Santa stumbles upon a mysterious burlap sack seemingly filled with any item that’s wished for. Overjoyed at his sudden supernatural ability, he sets off to fulfill people’s Christmas dreams.

Where to Stream: Hulu, Amazon Video

8. Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town (ABC, 1970)

Fred Astaire lends his voice to the story of how Santa Claus and several Claus-related Christmas traditions came to be. ABC still airs the Rankin/Bass special every year, but the network’s cut several scenes that might be traumatizing to younger viewers. Bummer.

7. Seinfeld – “The Strike” (NBC, 1997)

This is the episode that introduced the world to Festivus, a secular holiday for the rest of us. Enough said.

Where to Stream: Hulu

6. The Bob Hope 1964 Christmas Special (NBC, 1964)

Bob Hope is famous for his performances for active duty military personnel throughout a five-decade span, but way back in 1964, in the midst of the Vietnam War, few believed that Hope could successfully take his act to Southeast Asia. His persistence to visit personnel stationed in Vietnam, despite the significant risks involved, solidified his commitment to performing USO all the way until 1991. Hope’s tour covered 25,000 miles and included stops in Guam and Korea. He made stops at hospitals and on ships to visit with wounded service members, setting the pace and pattern for most of his tours to come. Even half a century later, few performers have displayed commitment like Bob Hope during the Christmas of 1964.

Where to Stream: Amazon Prime

5. The Year Without a Santa Claus (ABC, 1974)

In the classic, stop-motion Rankin/Bass production, Santa Claus decides to take a holiday, leaving Christmas in the hands of two elves. Only, the elves are shot down while delivering presents by the dastardly Miser brothers. Things get crazy from there. The visuals may bother some, but it remains a classic because it is exactly the film its director set out to make: a really weird film about Christmas.

Where to Stream: Amazon Prime

4. Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas (CBS, 1966)

Jim Carrey’s live-action Grinch has its fans, but it doesn’t top the original animated special directed by Chuck Jones and starring Boris Karloff. Based on the children’s book by Dr. Seuss, the surly Grinch, who was born with a heart “two sizes too small,” plots to ruin Christmas for the town of Whoville.

3. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (NBC, 1964)

For arguably most people, “holiday special” immediately brings to mind Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, the stop-motion classic that’s practically synonymous with Christmas entertainment. Rudolph has been broadcasted every year since 1964, making it the longest continuously running Christmas TV special in history.

Where to Stream: Amazon Prime

2. A Charlie Brown Christmas (CBS, 1965)

When it comes to holiday specials, Peanuts never fails to deliver cherished episodes. The Valentine’s Day special is great. The Halloween special is great. But there’s something particularly special about A Charlie Brown Christmas’ careful pacing, unpretentious tone, and jazz score. It is the most beautifully realized Peanuts holiday special and also a poignant take on the holidays that gives both kids and adults permission to feel more than pure cheer. It’s poetry and, inevitably, the best thing on television every December.

1. Star Wars Holiday Special (CBS, 1978)

No other holiday special has the notoriety of the Star Wars Holiday Special, a TV film so inexplicably bad that George Lucas himself said he wanted to smash every copy with a sledgehammer. Luckily, this surreal entry in the Star Wars canon has survived in bootleg digital form so viewers can continue to get a glimpse into Chewbacca’s rich family life, witness a musical number sung by The Golden Girls’ Bea Arthur, endure a far worse musical number by Jefferson Starship, and watch the great Carrie Fisher, may she rest in peace, absolutely and hilariously destroy a song. The special is almost good in how laughably unbearable it is, particularly because the sections featuring Chewbacca’s family, which take up a significant chunk of the runtime, have no subtitles. (That’s right! It’s a 45-minute Wookie sitcom with nothing but unintelligible growls.) Some specials earn a place in viewers’ hearts just for being broadcast every holiday season, but the Star Wars Holiday Special, which never re-aired after its first run on CBS, earned its place by being so incredibly poorly considered that watching it feels like witnessing something truly unique, especially in the age of the annual Star Wars cinematic triumph. Is it possible to unironically like it? Not really, but it’s impossible to not feel a strange affection for it as a product of incredibly crass commercialism and deep, ludicrous sentiment. If that doesn’t sum up the modern holidays, nothing does.

Get Fatherly In Your Inbox


Survey Callout Image