The holidays are nearly here, and that means yearly Christmas episodes of your favorite TV shows. Get ready for winter vacations, iconic characters donning Santa hats, and homages to the most popular films of the season, including a few A Christmas Carol nods here and there—at least, from the shows that don’t go on hiatus entirely when it’s time to unwrap presents and spend time with family. For many, these holiday-charged episodes are one of the best things about the “most wonderful time of the year.” Just like people look forward to Halloween specials of The Simpsons every year, there’s also a certain glee in watching a heartwarming Christmas episode.
But what goes into making festive episodes of shows you already love more than a chintzy, regurgitated mess? There are several factors that go into taking your average episode and imbuing it with just the right amount of sincerity and intrigue that both feels right for the particular show you’re watching and the franchise as a whole. As such, it’s a difficult process to perfect. There are several components that make memorable episodes, or at least the ones that we look back on fondly enough that we want to see them again at some point.
Perhaps the most important part of what goes into a Christmas episode is the “spirit” of the holiday. Christmas is about love, giving joy, and receiving it as well. During the golden age of television, when series like The Andy Griffith Show, The Beverly Hillbillies, and The Brady Bunch ruled the airwaves, holiday episodes were jam-packed with this very ideal.
The Brady Bunch found mom Carol getting laryngitis and worrying about being able to sing at church on Christmas. One kind department store Santa made the promise to her that she’d get her voice back in time, and seeing daughter Cindy selflessly make her “only” Christmas wish for her mom to get better was heartwarming in the way only a holiday story could be. This scene embodied the pure, unadulterated innocence that lies at the heart of Christmas. Sprinkling a bit of this magic on every holiday episode can transform even a simple story into a touching memory.
It probably goes without saying, but a Christmas episode shouldn’t be the most depressing of the series or introduce character deaths. Who wants to celebrate a positive, uplifting time of year with family as a favorite character passes away or there’s some other kind of depressing development? It’s best to keep these stories light in tone, or at the very least one-off explorations of characters in a self-contained environment. If a character must perish, wave it all off as a dream. The holiday season is for enjoying each other’s company and being merry. There’s nothing merry about seeing someone pass away, deal with a breakup, or receive bad news.
Christmas episodes usually work best when they’re one-off stories that don’t take place within the continuum of the narrative you’ve been watching for several seasons. Sure, it should take place during a narrative thread that makes sense, but at the end of the story, things can simply go back to the way they were before. The animated sitcoms Family Guy and The Simpsons do a fantastic job with this. One might argue the whole show is “reset” after each episode with those franchises already.
Of course, there are exceptions to this rule, though they can be risky to pull off. Doctor Who subverted expectations with its Christmas special “The Christmas Invasion.” It found the newly-regenerated Tenth Doctor (David Tennant) meeting with series regular Rose Tyler (Billie Piper) and her family, giving us a taste of what their new dynamic would be over the course of the new Doctor Who series. But while it acted as an important narrative arc, it kept all the important Doctor Who components intact: there were evil Santa robots and an alien race using them to take on half of the Earth’s population as slaves. It managed to remain entertaining and exciting for fans of the series while advancing character development and offering cheeky holiday fun for viewers who may not have kept up with the show.
Lastly, there should always be one memorable element that sticks with you to make you ready to come back to the story year after year—because not every show does Christmas specials annually, you know. Sometimes, there are episodes so fantastic that you just want to see the same one over and over, long after you watch the episode. The best ones make you want to come back year after year, or even when the holidays have passed.
The classic ’90s comedy Seinfeld has an iconic moment just like this. In an episode called “The Strike,” we hear the classic tale of George Costanza’s father and his imaginary holiday “Festivus.” Festivus is so unlike Christmas that it’s hard not to burst out into laughter when you hear him describe it. Instead of a Christmas tree, those who celebrate get to have an aluminum pole in their home and a wrestling match after dinner. It’s ridiculous, and Festivus has since turned into a pop culture moment and transformed December 23 into a meme-worthy occasion.
Though there are plenty of different ways to make Christmas episodes memorable, these are some of the most important elements to celebrate the holiday while remaining respectful of its origin and meaning for different individuals. One thing we can all agree on is that nothing beats sitting with your family at the holidays, watching your favorite characters take part in their own rituals, and experiencing the joy of togetherness. This holiday season, be sure you share some of your favorite Christmas episodes with the people in your life who are special to you.
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