Christmas is my favourite holiday, and anyone who knows me is aware of how excited I get whenever it gets to that time of year. As such there is little I enjoy more than sitting down with my Christmas socks, Christmas t-shirt, Christmas jumper and a hot chocolate and indulging in a Christmas TV special. The best Christmas specials make you feel a little of that magic and good spirit that you felt when you were little. Here are some of my favourite suggestions, with a mixture of genre and tone to hopefully suit everyone.
Air Date: 2014 – Present
Country of Origin: US
Premise: Dre is a successful man working in advertising and taking pride in the life he has been able to give to his family. However, the difference between his childhood and the one he gives to his family often causes friction with his parents. The show is a family sitcom that deals with a lot of current real world issues and doesn’t shy away from difficult topics.
Why it works for this category: Black-ish doesn’t have a weak link in its cast, making every episode a joy to watch. The kids in particular are brilliantly funny and believable. This is a sitcom that is great fun all year round, and its Christmas episodes are no exception. These episodes deal with various issues around Christmas, including consumerism and class differences, giving the episodes thoughtful points while still keeping up the humour and the warm touching elements of good Christmas specials. The episode ‘Black Santa/White Christmas’ sees Dre desperate to become the Santa at his office while his mother drives his wife Bow mad with her takeover of the holiday. ‘Stuff’ has Dre wondering if he has allowed his kids to become spoiled and ungrateful with the life he has provided. The upcoming episode ‘Just Christmas, Baby’ sees Dre trying to create the best Christmas he can before his daughter leaves for college. If you want some laughs while watching a family try to work out how to celebrate the holidays together then this show is a great pick.
Note: Being a sitcom with no on-going plotlines it should be easy enough to try a Christmas episode without having seen much of the rest of the show.
Christmas episodes: ‘Black Santa/White Christmas’, ‘Stuff’, ‘Just Christmas, Baby’
Bob’s Burgers (family sitcom, young girl who is comically sadistic, irresponsible adults)
Brooklyn Nine-Nine (ensemble sitcom, similar comedy)
Modern Family (family sitcom, intelligent young girl with comically dim siblings)
Air Date: 2009 – 2015
Country of Origin: US
Premise: On the surface Community is about a group of community college students who end up in a Spanish study group together. However, it is impressively much more than that. If you are a fan of pop culture, particularly geeky, references then there is no better sitcom at it than Community. Whether it is witty references within episodes, or episodes themed around cult films, common fictional tropes or whole genres, Community is a master at it.
Why it works for this category: I re-watch Community regularly, probably more than most other shows I like, but the Christmas episodes have a special place in my heart. With ‘Comparative Religion’ you get the comedy of the combination of a group of friends with different cultures and religion coming together to celebrate, with important messages about not forcing traditions and beliefs on each other. ‘Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas’ is both a throwback to and parody of old stop-motion Christmas stories and a touching character piece. ‘Regional Holiday Music’ takes a hilarious look at Glee and provides many great Christmas songs of its own. While ‘Intro to Knots’, although not strictly a fully Christmas episode, sees the gang accidentally initiating a hostage situation at their party. All of these episodes feature Community’s typical smart, pop-culture referencing humour, with its usual blend of heart-warming and uplifting moments. These are great episodes for getting in the Christmassy mood.
Note: Community’s in-jokes and continuity might make it more difficult to watch just the Christmas episodes.
Christmas episodes: ‘Comparative Religion’, ‘Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas’, ‘Regional Holiday Music’, ‘Intro to Knots’
Spaced (geeky references, sitcom around a group of unlikely friends)
Other Space (geeky sci-fi sitcom, diverse cast, group of unlikely friends)
Better Off Ted (geeky humour and characters, very light-hearted, similar tone)
The Royle Family
Air Date: 1998 – 2012
Country of Origin: UK
Premise: This sitcom gives us a window into the day to day lives of the Royles, a working class English family. The show often features the family sitting around watching TV, chatting and arguing. The comedy often comes from the conflict between the characters, but there is also touching moments of humanity. There is a strong sense of realism to this show, and much of what happens may be relatable even if your background is not similar.
Why it works for this category: I often relate this show to Christmas, despite there only being three Christmas episodes; because it was one of the shows my family would make time to watch on Christmas day. These specials feature very funny, yet realistic, looks at the difficulties, arguments, disasters, and bonding that are a part of Christmas. The episodes will give you a good laugh while also filling you with Christmas spirit as you see the small ways people can comfort and come together at the holidays. The characters are not always the nicest of people, but that often makes the touching moments that more meaningful as the kindness of the season gets to even them. There is also a lot to relate to with this show, so you may find yourself able to laugh at similar mishaps and family drama you’ve experienced.
Note: Being a sitcom focussing on mundane daily life it should be easy enough to try a Christmas episode without having seen much of the rest of the show.
Christmas episodes: Christmas Special (1999), Christmas Special (2000), Joe’s Crackers
The Office (UK) (characters who behave meanly, realistic setting, relatable moments)
Him and Her (characters who behave meanly, realistic setting, relatable moments)
Only Fools and Horses (working class family trying to make ends meet, family bonding despite arguments)
The League of Gentlemen
Air Date: 1999 – 2002
Network: BBC Two
Country of Origin: UK
Genre: Black Comedy, Horror Comedy
Premise: The League of Gentlemen began as a sketch group, consisting of Jeremy Dyson, Mark Gatiss, Steve Pemberton, and Reece Shearsmith. Following a successful run at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival they created a radio show which followed the bizarre inhabitants of a fictional town. This TV show is a successor to that radio show. Set in the same fictional town and featuring many of the same characters, the TV show follows a sketch show format but with ongoing plot lines. The members of The League of Gentlemen, except Jeremy Dyson, play almost all of the characters in the show.
Why it works for this category: This hour long Christmas special will be perfect if you are in the mood for something darker. The episode takes on an anthology style, bringing characters from the show in to three separate horror-themed comedy Christmas stories. The town’s cruel Christmas-hating vicar Bernice hears three different stories as Christmas approaches, involving voodoo, vampires and curses. The episode is darker and a little creepier than the show is normally, but is still very funny. While the tone may be bleaker due to the horror elements, it provides a good fun Christmas themed horror, with plenty of laughs to offset the darker moments. This will be suited to you if you don’t like your Christmas specials too sweet or preachy, and if you have an interest in both horror, particularly hammer horror, and comedy then the show in general will be a great fit for you.
Note: Some of the comedy might not work as well if you haven’t seen the rest of the show. It might be worth catching up before watching the Christmas special.
Christmas episodes: ‘Yule Never Leave!’
Inside No. 9 (half of the same writing team, horror-comedy, similar humour and scares)
Psychoville (half of the same writing team, horror-comedy, similar humour and scares)
Dead Set (horror comedy)
Air Date: 2006 – 2014
Country of Origin: US
Genre: Comedy, Procedural
Premise: Psych’s basic premise is that a highly perceptive and gifted, though immature, man pretends to be psychic in order to work solving crimes as a consultant for the police. While this could have been a forgettable and run of the mill procedural, Psych manages to turn this premise in to non-stop tremendous fun. With lots of comedy, tremendous pop-culture references and a fantastic cast, with some fun guest stars, you’ll never get bored of this show. The cases are very entertaining, but aren’t so much the focus of the show. The focus is more on the characters, humour, and developing romance. There are so many pop culture references that at least a few episodes will likely touch upon or be an homage to something you love.
Why it works for this category: Psych is a great pick to get you in the Christmassy mood since the show is so positive, fun and uplifting. While the mystery aspect is entertaining, it is often the hijinks and adventures of Shawn and Gus that are the focus. These two friends can lift your spirits in any episode, and Christmas is not an exception. These episodes have Shawn and Gus trying to free Gus’ dad from jail in time for Christmas, the team trying to free Santa from jail while Shawn tries to hide a relationship with Gus’ sister, and Psych’s take on It’s a Wonderful Life. These episodes certainly have Christmas spirit, but the focus is on the comedy, so if you’re looking for some Christmas themed laughs, with heart and mystery thrown in too, then Psych would be a perfect pick.
Note: While Psych doesn’t often have an ongoing continuity in its plot, some of the jokes might not work as well if you haven’t seen much of the show. It may be worth catching up before watching a Christmas special.
Christmas episodes: ‘Gus’ Dad May Have Killed an Old Guy’, ‘Christmas Joy’, ‘The Polarizing Express’
Monk (made by the same network, similar tone, lighthearted procedural)
The Mentalist (identical premise, though the tone is very different)
iZombie (protagonist solves crimes while keeping their true methods secret, similar lighthearted comedic tone)
Air Date: 1997 – Present
Network: BBC One
Country of Origin: UK
Genre: Mystery, Comedy, Drama
Premise: Jonathan Creek is a magician’s assistant who ends up solving crime, as his puzzle friendly mind allows him to put together clues that others may easily miss. The crimes are often very complex; there is only a handful I ever managed to work out before Jonathan. Many episodes are also quite dark and creepy, with some surprisingly scary stories, though there are also many moments of comedy.
Why it works for this category: If you like mystery, and especially if you enjoy creepier stories, then Jonathan Creek will be a fun way to get yourself in a Christmas mood. While the episodes aren’t Christmas centric, and don’t particularly have that warm Christmas feel, they are fantastic one-off specials that would suit watching with a group or on your own with the extra viewing time the holidays bring. Also I find traditional locked door/Sherlock Holmes style mysteries always make me feel Christmassy. Black Canary is a classic sherlockian whodunit, while Satan’s Chimney is one of the more sinister episodes of the show. There is a lot of comedy in Jonathan Creek, particularly between Jonathan and his assistants (who change throughout the seasons) as they bicker about the cases. The mystery is sure to keep you guessing until the end, and it is a lot of fun to attempt to work it out before Jonathan. This is a great show to watch with family and friends, as you’ll find yourselves trying to solve the mystery before the others in the room, and the conclusion should give you plenty to talk about after. These Christmas specials will give you great mysteries, a lot of entertainment, and some mildly scary moments.
Note: These episodes work as standalone specials and should be fine to watch out with the rest of the show.
Christmas episodes: ‘Black Canary’, ‘Satan’s Chimney’
Psych (modern Sherlock Holmes type detective, complicated mysteries, comedy mystery show)
Sherlock (modern Sherlock Holmes, complicated mysteries)
Monk (modern Sherlock Holmes type detective, complicated mysteries, comedy mystery show)
Air Date: 2006
Network: Sky One
Country of Origin: UK
Genre: Comedy, Fantasy, Christmas
Premise: Hogfather is an adaptation of the book of the same name by Terry Pratchett. Told over two episodes, the story is set during the run up to Hogswatchnight, an equivalent to Christmas, in the fictional fantasy world of Discworld. With the Hogfather, an equivalent to Santa, mysteriously missing, Death decides to take the Hogfather’s place to ensure children continue to believe in him.
Why it works for this category: This isn’t just a story set at Christmas, this is a story about Christmas, or at least its fantasy equivalent in this story. This story deals with tradition and beliefs as Hogswatchnight is in danger by the disappearance of the Hogfather. I read or watch the adaptation of this story every Christmas I can manage, and it never fails to put me in the holiday mood. This story is almost like the traditional kids Christmas movies that I love; Christmas is in danger and an odd group of heroes must work to keep it alive. Except this is a more adult orientated story, featuring assassins and more complex fantasy ideas. It’s got those elements from the likes of The Nightmare Before Christmas or Arthur Christmas where an unlikely character must take on the role of a Santa figure to save the holiday, though in this case that figure is the personification of Death. It is worth noting that Death is one of Pratchett’s best characters, a very funny outsider to the human race who often has some of the most touching and unexpectedly human stories. Hogfather is a story full of adventure, humour, villainy, and packed to the brim with Christmas spirit. No adaptation of Pratchett’s work can live up to the books, but this is by far the best of the attempts. Both the book and the adaptation are well worth a look in the run up to Christmas. This is without a doubt my favourite Christmas story.
Note: While the book is the 20th in the Discworld series, it is intended to work read out of order or on its own. The same is true of this adaptation.
Going Postal (another adaptation of a Terry Pratchett novel)
The Colour of Magic (another adaptation of a Terry Pratchett novel)
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (similar humour, wit and wacky characters/settings/scenarios)
Air Date: 1963 – Present
Country of Origin: UK
Genre: Science Fiction, Family
Premise: Following the charismatic and mysterious Doctor through numerous regenerations, played by different actors, Doctor Who is a show with a rich and in-depth history. At its heart the show is about the Doctor and his, also ever-changing, companions, as they travel through space and time exploring the universe and saving it when they can.
Why it works for this category: Doctor Who is the epitome of Christmas TV for me. In my family we even time our Christmas dinner around the yearly special on Christmas day. Every Christmas special has all that you could want for the season; adventure, humour, heart and good triumphing over evil. There are so many specials (not just on TV either, the Christmas audios are also worth looking in to), with so many different incarnations of the Doctor, that there is bound to be an episode that would appeal (though they are all fantastic and worth watching). This is a show that has become a part of many people’s Christmases for good reason. It will entertain you, warm your heart and fill you with Christmas spirit.
Note: Though Doctor Who typically has on-going plotlines, the specials often feel more standalone, likely for the viewers that just tune in on Christmas day. Therefore even if you haven’t seen much or anything of the show, the Christmas specials should still be enjoyable for you.
Christmas episodes: ‘The Christmas Invasion’, ‘The Runaway Bride’, ‘Voyage of the Damned’, ‘The Next Doctor’, ‘The End of Time’, ‘A Christmas Carol’, ‘The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe’, ‘The Snowmen’, ‘The Time of the Doctor’, ‘Last Christmas’, ‘The Husbands of River Song’, ‘The Return of Doctor Mysterio’
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (traveling in space, aliens, lighthearted adventure)
Torchwood (set in the same world, aliens)
12 Monkeys (time-travel, mystery)