7) That Girl – “Christmas and the Hard-Luck Kid” (Dec. 22, 1966)
Long before Kim Kardashian and reality television entered our lives, Marlo Thomas was television’s It Girl on That Girl. Launched in an era when every female character in film or television was blonde-haired and blue-eyed, the daughter of TV legend Danny Thomas was wacky and endearing in this sitcom that ran five well-rated seasons on ABC. In a touching holiday episode penned by a pre-Simpsons, pre-Oscar-winning James L. Brooks, Thomas’s sassy single girl Ann Marie recounts the occasion when her teaching stint at a boarding school resulted in her befriending a dour student whose parents have abandoned him for the holidays. As he would later accomplish in the films Terms of Endearment and As Good As It Gets, Brooks tugs all the right heartstrings and Thomas is downright adorable.
6) Blackadder – Blackadder’s Christmas Carol (Dec. 23, 1988)
The creators of the revered British comedy Blackadder gave fans a lasting present with this spin on Charles Dickens’ holiday fable. In this version, Ebenezer Blackadder (Rowan Atkinson) holds forth as the Victorian-era businessman who is kind to his workers, generous to a fault and much beloved by everyone he meets. The poor sod receives a wakeup call one Christmas Eve in the form of the garrulous Spirit of Christmas (played by Robbie Coltrane, presaging his role of Hagrid in the Harry Potter films), who shows Blackadder the future that might have been, or lessons to that effect. Watch for a pre-House Hugh Laurie in the dual roles of Prince George/Prince Pigmot.
5) Friends – “The One with the Routine” (Dec. 16, 1999)
The most successful sitcom of the nineties closed out the decade with some good vibrations and freaky dance moves. From the sixth season, the story has Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow), Chandler (Matthew Perry) and Rachel (Jennifer Aniston) searching the apartment of master gift-getter Monica (Courtney Cox) in hopes of finding her presents to them so they can buy her something equitable in return. More importantly, Joey (Matt LeBlanc) hauls Ross and Monica to an audition for dancers for Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve, where Ross and Monica attempt to get on the show by busting out their tandem high-school dance routine – known as “The Routine” – which they’ve obviously rehearsed to perfection. Even if they weren’t brother and sister, it would be inappropriate.
4) The Simpsons – “Miracle on Evergreen Terrace” (Dec. 21, 1997)
Over 25 years, the festive season has factored into several memorable episodes of The Simpsons, but this outing from the show’s ninth campaign stands out. The setup: Hellspawn Bart wakes up early Christmas morning and secretly unwraps his gifts. He has a hoot playing with his new remote-controlled fire truck, until it spritzes an electrical socket and sets fire to the tree and melts all the presents beneath. Bart being Bart, he elects to hide the evidence and tell the family that a burglar broke in and stole their Christmas bounty. The Simpsons become a local TV news cause célèbre and their friends and neighbours dig deep with donations. Then Bart’s ruse come to light. The whole shooting match ends up with the citizens of Springfield exacting vengeance on the Simpsons by stealing all their worldly possessions, after which Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa and Maggie playfully fight over a washcloth – the only thing left in the house.
3) Mr. Bean – Merry Christmas Mr. Bean (Dec. 29, 1992)
Oh, Mr. Bean, you strange, lovable little man. Rowan Atkinson’s mostly mute busybody celebrates the season his own way in this holiday staple unfolding in four vignettes. In the first chapter, he runs amok at a department store and disrupts a nativity scene. Next, he confounds an Oliver Twist-esque thief, harangues a Salvation Army band and procures a tree. Then he attempts to prepare Christmas dinner for his girlfriend (yes, Mr. Bean had a girlfriend) and ends up with a turkey stuck on his head. And finally, the big day arrives, and Mr. Bean wakes up on the big day with church bells chiming to tuck into a pile of presents he’s actually gifted to himself. Christmas socks!
2) Frasier – “Frasier Grinch” (Dec. 19, 1995)
Although it wasn’t always easy to warm up to the character of priggish Dr. Frasier Crane (Kelsey Grammer), there were brief moments when he could positively melt your heart. From the third season, this holiday episode opens with Frasier giddy over the pending arrival of his young son Frederick, who is coming to stay with him for the first time since the divorce. Frederick has made it clear that he wants the season’s most popular toy – the Outlaw Laser Robo Geek action figure – while his stuffy pater has decreed that the lad would be better served by an educational toy called “The Living Brain.” Mishaps ensue and by the time Christmas Eve rolls around, Frasier has no presents for his son – but then Frederick’s grandfather Martin (John Mahoney) suggests Frasier open one of his gifts early. It’s the Robo Geek doll, of course, and we can only assume it was promptly regifted.
1) Seinfeld – ‘The Strike’ (Dec. 18, 1997)
For many people, this episode that popularized Festivus has become traditional holiday viewing in the vein of It’s a Wonderful Life or A Charlie Brown Christmas. Broadcast midway through the show’s ninth and final season, the story adheres to the Seinfeld tenet of giving each of the show’s four principals a solid comic setup: Jerry (Jerry Seinfeld) is intrigued by the notion his new girlfriend might be a “Two-Face” (she looks great or no-so-great depending on lighting); Elaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) is scouring New York to find the man to whom she gave a fake phone number (because she wrote it on the back of a card entitling her to a free sub sandwich); Kramer (Michael Richards) goes back to his former job at H&H Bagels following a 12-year strike; while George (Jason Alexander) is trying to prevent everyone from finding out about Festivus, a holiday created by his dotty father Frank (Jerry Stiller) that includes the traditions of mounting an aluminum pole in the livingroom, feats of strength between family members and the annual Airing of the Grievances. In the words of Frank Costanza: “It’s a Festivus, for the rest of us!”