1. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964)
Like it, love it, even hate it; when it comes to television Christmas specials the Rankin/Bass stop-motion animation Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer might be the quintessential entry. The island of misfit toys, the elf who dreams of life as a dentist, Burl Ives as the snowman — all classic Christmas imagery. Fun fact: originally there was no conclusion to the island of misfit toys storyline, and after a year of protests following the special’s original airing, General Electric shot additional footage for subsequent airings that included the toys being rescued in the end.
2. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia: A Very Sunny Christmas (2009)
Aside from perhaps one other entry on this list, where else can you turn for a Christmas special that includes a naked man birthed from a leather couch, an assault on a costumed Santa Claus and a claymation tribute to Rankin/Bass classics that ends in a gory, sacrificial mutilation of one of the show’s main characters? It’s clear the crew behind Sunny love their Christmas specials — not for the right reasons, mind you.
3. The Office Christmas Special (2003)
The original (BBC) version of The Office wrapped up two season’s worth of story with a grand finale, two-part special. Although a majority of these last two episodes centre around matters not related to the holidays, the series reaches its magnificent, satisfying conclusion on the stage of the office Christmas party. The guy finally wins the girl, the dolt stands up for himself and all is right with the world.
4. Futurama, “Xmas Story” (1999)
Faced with the task of providing a holiday episode set 1,000 years in the future, Matt Groening and the rest of the Futurama team came up with something that looks like Christmas but feels more like a Halloween horror story. The “Xmas Story” episode is our first introduction to the holiday season in the year 3000, where a robot designed to replicate Santa has gone haywire and now spends every Christmas night on a murderous rampage, after all those he deems to be naughty — which is everyone.
5. A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)
The first television special to be based on Charles Schulz’s Peanuts comic strip, A Charlie Brown Christmas lives on today through annual network reruns and a soundtrack, by jazz composer Vince Guaraldi, that is so pervasive it’s become synonymous with actually-good Christmas music. ACBC is also well known for Linus’s recounting of Luke, verses 8-14 of the King James Bible.
6. South Park, “Mr. Hankey’s Christmas Classics” (1999)
There are many great-to-decent South Park Christmas episodes to choose from, but “Mr. Hankey’s Christmas Classics” hit the theme episode format out of the park. Rather than tell one specific story, Matt Stone and Trey Parker decided to devote all twenty-some minutes of their program singing their very own Christmas tunes. From this, we have such classics as “Christmas Time in Hell,” “Merry Fucking Christmas” and, of course, the absolutely fantastic jazz lounge duet sung by Jesus and Santa.
7. The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978)
Oh, Star Wars Holiday Special, you are at once the greatest and the worst thing about the Star Wars universe. Quick history: this special came out shortly after the first SW movie and Lucas had far less control of this made-for-television feature than any of the theatrical films. The special contains appearances from nearly all the main SW cast, but since this was only meant to be a one-off cash grab by studio, the sets all look like rejects from a Monty Python sketch and the acting appears mostly either confused or improvised. All of this and I haven’t even touched on Chewbacca’s sitcom-esque family, including his grumpy father Itchy.
8. How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1966)
Along with Rudolf and Charlie Brown, this Dr. Seuss adaptation is one of the few specials of the ’60s that still receives regular television airtime to this day. With a runtime that clocks in at a modest 26 minutes, How the Grinch Stole Christmas! is one of the most faithful re-tellings of a Christmas book. Easily miles ahead of the audacious live action version of 2000, the narration of this Grinch became so well known that the Boris Karloff’s voice work has since been sold on countless HTGSC soundtracks.
9. A Muppet Family Christmas (1987)
The Muppets probably deserve a lifetime achievement award for the amount of Christmas fare they’ve put out over the years. A Muppet Family Christmas, however, was a spectacle in that it not only featured the Muppets but also had appearances from Sesame Street characters, Fraggle Rock characters and even Jim Henson himself. For kids of the ’80s (and still today) this was a real treat.
10. The Simpsons, “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire” (1989)
Bet you didn’t know that “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire,” the one where Homer brings home Santa’s Little Helper for Christmas, was actually the first full-length Simpsons episode to ever air on television, did you? This one is a shoe-in for important Christmas shows. Of course, it also helps that, in true early Simpsons fashion, the episode was also honest-to-goodness great television; Bart gets a “mother” tattoo removed, siphoning all of the family’s holiday savings? Gold!