Holiday Episodes that Stick with Us

While not all television shows feature holiday episodes, most primetime shows jump on that bandwagon at least a few times during their run. Therefore, it stands to reason that most viewers have seen their fair share of Christmas and Hanukkah themed hijinks. Here, we each talk about some episodes that, for one reason or another, stick with us year after year.

Kristin Marie: So, it turns out that I don’t really like holiday programming very much. This was not something I was actively aware of before the decision to write this. Charlie Brown Christmas Special? Eh. It’s a Wonderful Life? Meh. I don’t have the same sort of TV traditions that most people have, apparently. Christmas music? I’ll sing that everywhere (including impromptu iPhone-speaker-based sing alongs with my sister in stores that aren’t playing carols).

So my favorite holiday episodes aren’t my favorites because they feature the holidays. They are my favorites that happen to feature the holidays.

Doctor Who, “The Christmas Invasion” (2005 Christmas Special

Before I even knew what a British Christmas Special was, there was David Tennant in striped pajamas. The introduction of the 10th Doctor in “The Christmas Invasion” ranks amongst the best five minute clips of television ever produced. In seconds, you learn everything about this Doctor, all while he’s still figuring it out for himself and accidentally quoting The Lion King.

Notice I didn’t mention anything to do with Christmas in there? I swear I’m not a Grinch but what makes this episode – really, the last act – so great has absolutely nothing to do with the holiday and everything to do with the characters. Which brings me to…

The Office, “The Christmas Party” (2×10)

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Much more traditionally festive than Doctor Who, “The Christmas Party” centers around the office Secret Santa that turns to a vicious Yankee swap. The thoughtful gift that Jim meticulously put together for Pam – a teapot filled with bonus gifts – falls in to Dwight’s hands instead.

Watching Jim go through the list of inside jokes he compiled for Pam, some of which weren’t even explained, is the perfect glimpse into his love for Pam. The audience had seen the flirting and the looks, but this was the perfect moment to highlight the depth and truth of his love for her – with a mixtape, a Boggle timer, and a yearbook picture. (See the complete list of bonus gifts here.)

For me, the holidays are about surrounding myself with the people I love, which on the best of holidays reminds me why I love them. These episodes do the same for me – they introduce facets to characters I already love and deepen that connection in surprising ways.

All with a quick Lion King quote and a mini golf pencil.

Kirsten Leigh: Unlike Kristin, the holiday season was not something I fully embraced until recent years. Then I started traveling more often, and the days leading up to Christmas found me in a foreign country or distant hotel room more often than not. Suddenly, Christmas specials from my childhood (tracked down on YouTube) and holiday-themed episodes became catnip for my jet-lagged brain. And, well, this year is no exception.

An episode resonates more when it contains a tinge of the bittersweet – individuals banding together to make the best of circumstances, or reminders to value how fortunate we really are.

Bones, “The Man in the Fallout Shelter” (1×09)

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Ten seasons later, it’s easy to forget that the team at the Jeffersonian wasn’t always as close as they are now. Forced to spend Christmas Eve quarantined in the lab by possible exposure to Valley fever, Booth and the squints try to craft a festive holiday by holding a Secret Santa, turning lab supplies into decorations, and solving the murder of a man who died in the 1950s.

Although the episode does veer into the saccharine, its bottle structure means that we learn a lot about the characters: Booth has a four-year-old son, Angela’s dad is Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top, and Brennan never moved past being abandoned by her parents shortly before Christmas when she was fifteen.

The episode’s appeal stems partially from when I first saw it: right after Thanksgiving, after living for more than four months in Budapest, in a bout of homesickness. Brennan’s drive to solve the murder and give the man’s family the closure that circumstances denied her is a powerful reminder that the meaning of a holiday emerges from the memories with which we imbue it, good and bad. Sometimes the best, most healing gifts we can get come from selfless giving to others.

The West Wing, “In Excelsis Deo” (1×10)

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Another first season, another successful holiday outing. Although The West Wing would go on to have several powerful themed episodes over the course of its run, the first remains the best. A showcase for Richard Schiff as the irascible but moral Toby Ziegler (a Sorkin archetype that was never quite as effective hereafter), the main storyline follows his quest to get a state burial in Arlington National Cemetery for a homeless Korean war vet who died with Toby’s business card in the pocket of his coat.

The veteran and Toby never met – it turns out Toby had donated the coat – but he nevertheless takes on the responsibility of find the man’s next of kin and giving him a proper funeral. Doing so means abusing the power of his position, but on a Sorkin show, the contest between a moral imperative and bureaucratic propriety can only end one way.

Toby’s storyline manages to be sincere but not treacly, and it’s combined with the typical rapid-fire walk-and-talk banter to counterbalance the weight of the main plot. To give of oneself – not only when it’s easy, but when it’s right – turns out to be the most important thing the characters can do.