The 20 best Christmas episodes of all time, from The Office to Friends

It’s not easy to nail a Christmas special, with some dripping in sentimentality and tired old jokes, but here are the ones that get it right  (BBC, NBC, HBO)
It’s not easy to nail a Christmas special, with some dripping in sentimentality and tired old jokes, but here are the ones that get it right (BBC, NBC, HBO)

Family dramas, tired old jokes, attempts at sentimentality. Yep, we all know when Christmas has arrived at home, but what’s it like on the telly? Well... there are lashings of that stuff too when it comes to the festive TV episode – one of the most difficult challenges going for writers and producers, despite the prospect of a large, almost literally captive audience. Yet some Christmas specials deliver with all the panache of Santa making a grand entrance down the chimney and kicking the coals into the centre of the living room.

So here we go with a rundown of our favourites. Laughs, we’ve got those. Tears, yes, those too. We’ve taken a few liberties: the episode of The Wire featured below went out on 10 December in America, for example, and who knows when we saw it on that ghost of Christmas past, the boxset. But it has carols and that’s good enough for us...

20. Doctor Who, ‘A Christmas Carol’ (2010)

It’s surprising, given what a big, playful fantasy series Doctor Who has been all these years, that it has produced so few decent Christmas specials. It’s as if the lurking prohibition – don’t terrify sleep-starved children on Christmas night – and the invitation to “go large” ensure that the specials can be particularly daft, kitschy and over the top. “A Christmas Carol” shares all these flaws – flying sharks, fezzes and a singing Katherine Jenkins make an appearance – but somehow makes a virtue of them, thanks to the energy of Matt Smith as the Doctor, the nastiness of Michael Gambon as bitter old Kazran Sardick, and the panache of Steven Moffat (with a little plot help from Charles Dickens). It’s not in the first rank of Who stories – and the Doctor and Christmas Day should be a match made in heaven – but it’s the best one so far. Maybe Russell T Davies can surprise us. Chris Harvey

19. Poirot, ‘The Theft of the Royal Ruby’ (1991)

Laymen will point you towards “Hercule Poirot’s Christmas”, the most overtly festive of ITV’s Agatha Christie adaptations. But that 90-minute special came during the show’s late period, when the shark had been jumped, and the mulled wine spiked with excess solemnity. “The Theft of the Royal Ruby” is a story from the collection The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding, and finds Poirot (David Suchet) heading to an exceptionally attractive Art Deco estate (peak Poirot property watch here) for a caper that involves light crime (no murder) and plenty of seasonal attractions. For me, there are few pleasures as cheerily festive as watching the impeccably groomed Belgian sleuth chow down on a steaming bowl of Christmas pudding. Nick Hilton

18. Morecambe and Wise, ‘Christmas Show’ (1971)

The high point of the light entertainment era was the 1970s, when The Two Ronnies, impressionist Mike Yarwood and Morecambe and Wise guaranteed huge festive ratings for the BBC. Eric and Ernie hosted Christmas shows for the corporation from 1969 to 1977, and everyone who remembers them will have a different favourite: 1977, with Elton John, Angela Rippon and Formula One playboy James Hunt, was the highest rating; but we like this one, with Eric telling Shirley Bassey that one of her songs makes Ernie cry (“Hey Big Spender”, of course), Andre Previn conducting Eric on the piano, and Glenda Jackson, who died earlier this year, pressed into performing as a dancer. The template for Reeves and Mortimer is already fully formed. CH

17. EastEnders, ‘Episode 194’ (1986)

“Happy Christmas, Ange.” Oh, Dirty Den, you b*****d. This was the big one, when Leslie Grantham’s king of nasty Dennis Watts saved up a big Christmas surprise for Anita Dobson’s Angie. Nope, not diamonds, fur coat or champagne… but a neat, white envelope with divorce papers inside. Watched by somewhere close to half of Britain, this episode set the tone for decades of Christmas day trauma in soapland – fights, deaths, disasters – because what goes down better with too much to eat and drink than gob-smacking vicarious tragedy? From the gallows humour of Cilla Battersby blowing up the chippy in Coronation Street (2005) to the same show’s tram crash in 2010, the soaps have been bringing the “Oh no” to “O Little Town of Bethlehem” ever since. CH

16. Black Mirror, ‘White Christmas’ (2014)

If your Christmas isn’t stressful enough already (and let’s face it: it probably is) then might I recommend Black Mirror’s one-off Yuletide special, “White Christmas”? Two men – Rafe Spall and Jon Hamm – have been trapped together for years in a snowbound cabin. When they finally begin to talk, and gradually unravel the traumatic circumstances that led them here, what unspools before them is a sick web of abuse, judgment, and nightmarish reprisals. “White Christmas” finds the show’s creator Charlie Brooker at his twisted best, combining the perils of technology with humanity’s base instinct to hurt one another. And the final scene is as hellish as any committed to celluloid. Ho ho ho. NH

Jon Hamm in the nightmarish 'Black Mirror’ White Christmas (HAL SHINNIE)
Jon Hamm in the nightmarish 'Black Mirror’ White Christmas (HAL SHINNIE)

15. Top of the Pops, ‘Christmas Special Part 1’ (1979)

This isn’t the best Top of the Pops Christmas special. The Sixties shows were chock full of studio performances from The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, The Beatles, The Who, The Supremes, Jimi Hendrix and Dusty Springfield; the Seventies had golden pop moments scattered all around; 1981 had The Human League, Spandau Ballet, Kirsty MacColl and The Teardrop Explodes. But those shows all take on a gruesome hue with the hideous Krampus-like presence of Jimmy Savile. Even when Krampus was absent in 1973 for Slade’s “Merry Xmas Everybody” or in 1971 for T-Rex, the Stones and Rod Stewart, there was sex offender Gary Glitter to add the opposite of sparkle. So, in recognition of how important pop music used to be to Christmas Day, we’ve chosen this one, with Janet Kay, Blondie, Gary Numan, Ian Dury, Boney M, Roxy Music and Cliff. Plus Kid Jensen and Peter Powell. A minor treasure. CH

14. The Bear, ‘Fishes’ (2023)

Lots of shows break format for a Christmas episode, but perhaps none more successfully than Disney+’s The Bear, which doubled its usual episode length and played out a 66-minute flashback for its second season episode, “Fishes”. Carmy (Jeremy Allen White) returns from Copenhagen for a family Christmas, but, true to The Bear’s fiendishly chaotic energy, things don’t go off without a hitch. The Feast of the Seven Fishes – a Berzatto family tradition that gives the episode its name – provides an alternative version of Christmas dinner, but, as ever with The Bear, the food is just a metaphor for human drama. With Jamie Lee Curtis on supreme guest appearance form, and a final moment shocking enough to wake Grandpa at the dinner table, “Fishes” represents the high watermark of modern Christmas one-offs. NH

13. The World at War, ‘Pincers’ (1974)

For many of us, growing up, Christmas was a time for being bored stiff by long, rambling stories about “the war”. But that generation is increasingly absent from dinner tables these days, and there is a cohort of children growing up who don’t know that Christmas is, in part, about allowing old men to bleed the radiator of their PTSD over some eggnog. Forcing the new generation to watch The World at War, the Laurence Olivier narrated epic about the Second World War, is a good antidote to that. “Pincers”, which charts the last year on the Western Front, and, particularly, the wintery conflict in the snowy forests of the Ardennes, should keep them off TikTok for 44 sombre minutes. NH

12. Only Fools and Horses, ‘Thicker than Water’ (1983)

We’re not expecting this one to pass without an argument. John Sullivan wrote 16 Christmas specials for his south London sitcom from the beginning of the show in 1981 to its end in 2003, nine of which topped the festive ratings, so most people will have their own favourite. Sullivan was at the apogee of his ability to spring a laugh from rubbing salt in a wound when he wrote this one. It begins with the sudden appearance of Del Boy and Rodney’s long-absent father, Reg, with a will to take advantage wherever he can. It’s the beginning of a storyline which, like many a great Victorian novel, turns on the true nature of the brothers’ parentage. Was Reg biological father to only one of the chalk-and-cheese siblings? David Jason’s Derek Trotter decides that the doubts add up to Nicholas Lyndhurst’s Rodders being a “whodunnit”. It’s a thread that is spun out until the very last episode of the show. CH

11. Friends, ‘The One with the Holiday Armadillo’ (2000)

The one that falls midway through season seven, with David Crane and Marta Kauffman’s sitcom still operating at its almost impossibly sustained peak. The gag count is high. It opens with Phoebe’s arrival with the “Christmas skull” and progresses seamlessly through Joey doing his impression of Animal from The Muppets on his new drums, and on to Chandler’s foolhardy intro to the maitre d’ at a swanky restaurant – “Hi, can we get two burritos to go?” The plot turns on Ross’s losing battle to introduce his son to Hanukkah in the face of the rival attraction of Santa Claus. It’s just Friends, neatly bottled for Christmas, and we’re OK with that. CH

10. The Office (US), ‘A Benihana Christmas’ (2006)

The modern American sitcom has become hugely reliant on an annual Christmas extravaganza. This means that they can be rather disposable; somewhat hit and miss. Not so for The Office, the American iteration of Ricky Gervais’s Slough saga. There are several excellent Christmas episodes, but the best is “A Benihana Christmas”. A heartbroken Michael (Steve Carell) is Shanghaied by the men of the office into an impromptu trip to the Japanese eatery Benihana. From there, the evening, which coincides with the office Christmas party, devolves into a mess of factional in-fighting, racial profiling, and cathartic misery. Like the best episodes of the show, it is Michael-centric without letting him be so monstrous as to derail the emotional heart of the narrative. NH

9. Gavin and Stacey, the first ‘Christmas Special’ (2008)

Gavin and Stacey is a show about families – those uniquely disparate yet intimate units – which makes it ideal Christmas viewing. What is it that Tolstoy said about all happy and unhappy families? Well, Gavin and Stacey is, ultimately, a show about happy families, and Christmas is a time for pretending that you’re part of a happy family, so there’s much kinship to be found in their 2008 cross-Britain Christmas special. The eccentric Welsh family of Stacey (Joanna Page) travel to Essex to spend Christmas with her in-laws, where husband Gavin (Mathew Horne) tells his parents that he’s moving to Cardiff. The episode beautifully captures the confluence of these two worlds, giving it the feel of a crossover episode as Barry and Billericay collide, and the bittersweet experience of your (married) son (in his mid-thirties) leaving home. NH

The ‘Gavin and Stacey’ cast don their Christmas crowns (BBC)
The ‘Gavin and Stacey’ cast don their Christmas crowns (BBC)

8. Gilmore Girls, ‘The Bracebridge Dinner’ (2001)

Amy Sherman-Palladino’s seminal small-town saga is sometimes described as a very Jewish show without many actual Jews. Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that it’s also an extremely Christmassy show without much actual Christmas. For fans, the delight that Lorelai (Lauren Graham) feels at the first snow of the year has become symbolic of its seasonal resonance. Put simply: Gilmore Girls is a show for the twilight months of the year, curled up on the sofa with a hot chocolate and a box of Ferrero Rochers. “The Bracebridge Dinner” is as close as the show comes to an actual Christmas episode: Stars Hollow is cut off from civilisation by a snowdrift, meaning a convention who have booked the Independence Inn for a lavish holiday feast are unable to show up. In true Gilmore style, Lorelai throws together an extravaganza for friends and family, complete with horse-drawn sleigh rides. NH

7. The Wire, ‘Final Grades’ (2006)

Game’s still the game, despite the carols and Christmas trees, in the final episode of the fourth season of The Wire, in which all the vulnerability and promise of the four young kids whose destinies shape the season succumbs to the forces that have been operating on them all along. Some of The Wire’s most beloved characters face their demons in this episode, and one dies. Mistakes, vanity and street morality alike face a reckoning. It’s one of the great episodes, inevitable and soul-crushing, shot through with jeopardy at every turn. And it helped to cement David Simon’s masterpiece as novelistic television with few equals. CH

6. Mad Men, ‘Christmas Comes But Once a Year’ (2010)

Prestige drama series don’t always seem entirely comfortable embracing the spirit of Christmas. After all, if you’re creating a novelistic sweep – a quasi-literary saga – then a detour for a Christmas special feels a little tacky. Mad Men gets this balance spot-on with “Christmas Comes But Once a Year”, a fourth-season episode that finds both Don Draper (Jon Hamm) and his agency in a state of flux. Like the best Mad Men episodes, it combines the veneer of ostentatious debauchery with confusing sexual politics and the disappointment inherent in being a human. What says Christmas more than your characters brimming with regret as Teresa Brewer warbles “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus”? NH

5. The Simpsons, ‘Marge Be Not Proud’ (1995)

The Simpsons has plenty of seasonal episodes, and there’s an argument for claiming that “Mr Plow”, possibly the most celebrated of all the show’s 757 episodes, has a Christmassy energy. But more explicitly festive, and equally good, is the series seven episode “Marge Be Not Proud”. After he is caught shoplifting a coveted video game, Bart (Nancy Cartwright) is punished by his mother Marge (Julie Kavner) and excluded from the family’s Christmas celebrations. The episode culminates in Springfield’s juvenile menace putting his deviant ways (temporarily) behind him in order to reconcile with his “mom” in time for Christmas. It is The Simpsons at its most introspective and poignant, and, mercifully, its least satirical. NH

4. The Vicar of Dibley, ‘The Christmas Lunch Incident’ (1996)

The confluence of village life and a vicar for your protagonist made it inevitable that Richard Curtis’s BBC sitcom The Vicar of Dibley would put together a fine Christmas special. Geraldine (Dawn French) is a manic modern manifestation of Saint Nick. Her gregarious disposition and care for her parishioners lead her on a typically picaresque journey through the Christmas lunches of Dibley’s deranged denizens. It is an altogether more enjoyable experience for viewers than for Geraldine’s over-burdened digestive system. What makes “The Christmas Lunch Incident” so effective is that it avoids the trap – the vast, gaping puddle – of many one-off festive specials, and manages to be a worthwhile and coherent episode of the show itself. NH

Dawn French is a manic modern manifestation of Saint Nick in this ‘Vicar of Dibley’ special (BBC)
Dawn French is a manic modern manifestation of Saint Nick in this ‘Vicar of Dibley’ special (BBC)

3. M*A*S*H, ‘Death Takes a Holiday’ (1980)

War isn’t massively Christmassy (unless you’re talking about that Sainsbury’s ad, with the football match and the trenches and the sweet little chocolate bar). But, then again, M*A*S*H, the heralded dramedy that counterposed war in Korea with its contemporary cousin in Vietnam, often managed to bridge the gap between tragedy and comedy. “Death Takes a Holiday” is, in some ways, as sombre a Christmas special as you can imagine: the medics at the 4077th battle to keep a dying patient alive until Boxing Day, so as not to spoil the holidays for his family. The fact that they fail in this endeavour is exactly what made M*A*S*H an exceptional show: never excessively sentimental, always impeccably well-judged. NH

2. Peep Show, ‘Seasonal Beatings’ (2010)

From its first moments, with the anxious excitement of Jeremy as he arrives in Mark’s bedroom on Christmas morning – “There wasn’t anything at the end of my bed when I woke up…” – everything you could possibly want from your favourite co-dependent couple is here in this festive treat. That opening exchange ends with Mark’s interior whine at being busted as a non-reciprocal Scrooge – “It’s not fair, that’s just aggressive generosity”. But that’s merely the Sunny Delight and cava cocktail before the feast to come. Mark’s parents are en route for Christmas dinner with their dutiful son (“Luckily, we’re all English, so no one’s going to ask any questions. Thank you, centuries of emotional repression”). David Mitchell and Robert Webb are flawless, as is Isy Suttie as Dobby, and Eliza Bennett as Mark’s sister Sarah. This is basically a very good Peep Show episode doubling as a Christmas special – what more could you ask for? CH

1. The Office (UK), ‘Christmas Special: Parts 1 & 2’ (2003)

When you only have a dozen regular episodes, you better make the Christmas special count. Nobody has done this better than Ricky Gervais’s note-perfect, era-defining sitcom, The Office. A year after the series ended with Tim (Martin Freeman) confessing his futile love for Dawn (Lucy Davis), the show returns to find the gang scattered across the globe: Gervais’s David Brent is failing, spectacularly, to savour his redundancy package, and Dawn is unhappily entangled in Florida. But at a reunion Christmas party, everything changes. If you read The Office as a romcom (and why wouldn’t you?) then this is the two-part, 90-minute, dash to the airport. No show has earned the right to have a soppy ending more than this exquisitely tortuous cringefest. NH