Christmas TV often focuses on beloved classics that people watch every year, like Charlie Brown and the Grinch; but there’s plenty of less famous TV Christmas stories well worth watching, and here are 12 great all-ages examples from episodic TV series:
Have Gun – Will Travel – “The Hanging Cross” (S1E15-1957)
Gentleman gunfighter Paladin seeks a peaceful solution to a Christmas conflict between a ruthless rancher, his long-lost son (guest star Johnny Crawford before his run on The Rifleman) and the dying Indigenous tribe who raised the boy.
First-rate TV western HGWT ran for six seasons and 225 episodes (1957-1963), a run from the heyday of half-hour dramas, packing tightly plotted dramatic stories into 20-odd minutes (The Rifleman, The Twilight Zone and early Gunsmoke are also fine examples from the period). A cultured, charming, luxury-loving ladies’ man, Paladin was the darling of high society in San Francisco but made his money as a roving high-priced mercenary, a rugged and oft-lethal gun for hire, though he preferred nonviolent methods if possible. The man was a jumble of contradictions, and the show could be similarly amorphous, shifting from action thriller to borderline nihilism to lighthearted comedy depending on wherever Paladin’s work took him next, either geographically or emotionally.
Also worth watching: HGWT’s second Christmas episode, “Be Not Forgetful of Strangers” (S6E15), in which Paladin tries to interrupt a remote town’s drunken Christmas eve revelry long enough to assist a young pregnant couple for whom there is literally no room at the inn (sounds familiar).
The Twilight Zone – “The Changing of the Guard” (S3E37-1962)
Elderly prep school professor Ellis Fowler (Donald Pleasence), forced into retirement and feeling like a failure, contemplates suicide on Christmas Eve until shadowy visitors intervene.
The original Twilight Zone’s five seminal seasons (1959-1964) remain not only the best version of the Twilight Zone (there have been several revivals), not only the all-time best anthology series, not only among the best sci-fi/fantasy/horror TV ever, but also among the best TV shows ever made. It declined over time – the first season is full of gems with few duds while the final season has plenty of duds and few gems – but there were classic episodes in every season, cementing series creator Rod Serling’s place in the TV pantheon.
Also worth watching: “What You Need” (S1E12), not exactly a holiday episode but promoted as one since it first aired on Christmas Day and does feature a magical man who gives people gifts (always whatever they need most at a given moment whether they realize it or not); “The Night of the Meek” (S2E11), in which a drunken department store Santa stumbles onto a magical bag full of infinite presents; and surreal gem “Five Characters in Search of an Exit” (S3E14), arguably a stealth holiday episode since most of its story (about five random people trapped in a strange cylindrical limbo realm) has no readily apparent link to Christmas until the tale’s weird final twist.
Taxi – “A Full House for Christmas” (S1E13-1978)
The cab drivers and the show’s viewers are reluctantly rooting for oft-loathsome taxi dispatcher Louie DePalma (Danny DeVito) as he tries to use a card game wager to make his long-absent brother visit their mother for Christmas.
One of the smartest, funniest sitcoms in history with a stellar ensemble cast playing indelibly memorable characters like the despicable slimeball DePalma and the good-hearted flake Reverend Jim (Christopher Lloyd), Taxi lasted five seasons (1978-1982) but was never a huge hit, perhaps due in part to its persistent melancholy streak and its dingy setting, a taxi cab company garage full of folks stuck in a dead-end job.
Also worth watching: “Get Me Through the Holidays” (S5E12), in which nice-guy cabbie Alex (Judd Hirsch) is pressured into spending Christmas with his depressed ex-wife Phyllis (Louise Lasser); it’s a very funny and commendably humane story, albeit bleak even by Taxi standards (seriously, freaking Charlie Brown has a more upbeat attitude about the holidays than Phyllis).
WKRP in Cincinnati – “Bah, Humbug” (S3E7-1980)
Sleeping off Dr. Johnny Fever’s special brownies after canceling everyone’s Christmas bonuses, hapless radio station manager Arthur Carlson (Gordon Jump) goes on a darkly comical, Scrooge-like dream journey.
Like Taxi, radio station workplace comedy WKRP in Cincinnati (four seasons, 1978-1982) was a smart, funny sitcom with a great cast playing memorable characters, like delusional newsman Les Nessman (Richard Sanders), semi-conscious classic rock DJ Dr. Johnny Fever (Howard Hesseman) and oddly glamourous receptionist Jennifer Marlowe (Loni Anderson). Never a big hit during its original run, WKRP was a huge success in syndication, and Shout Factory has since brought the complete series to DVD, including “Bah, Humbug”.
Also worth watching: “Jennifer’s Home for Christmas” (S2E11), in which the WKRP staff get the impression their alluring co-worker Jennifer might be unexpectedly alone for Christmas, so they rally to flood her posh apartment with unsolicited yuletide cheer.
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – “The Blue Carbuncle” (S1E7-1984)
A wayward Christmas goose and a dazzling stolen jewel lead Holmes and Watson into a multi-layered mystery to save a wrongly accused man and find the real culprit.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s iconic 1887 literary creation Sherlock Holmes has been adapted for film and television dozens of times; but the gold standard of screen Sherlocks remains the great Jeremy Brett, whose deeply personal, unpredictably quirky yet definitively faithful portrayal of the character was featured in an array of 1984-1994 projects: TV series The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, The Return of Sherlock Holmes, The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes and The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (in that order), plus a handful of TV movies set in the same continuity as the shows. These projects declined in frequency and quality over time due in part to Brett’s failing health, but not before producing dozens of finely crafted mysteries, including the excellent Blue Carbuncle case from the show’s early peak period.
Also worth watching: “The Cardboard Box” (S4E6 from the Memoirs run), in which a gruesome holiday gift leads Holmes to uncover a family quarrel and multiple murder. It’s a compelling tragedy with psychologically complex villains and some existentialist angst from Holmes, though as one of the darkest and grisliest tales in the Holmes canon it’s neither great family viewing nor ideal holiday comfort food.
The Tick – “The Tick Loves Santa!” (S2E12-1995)
When a freak accident turns a Santa-suited bank robber into the self-replicating one-man criminal army known as Multiple Santa, Christmas-loving superhero The Tick can’t bring himself to battle a villain who looks just like Santa Claus.
For three gloriously surreal, endlessly quotable, all-too-brief seasons in 1994-1996, comic book writer-artist Ben Edlund’s wacky superhero satire creation The Tick was adapted into an animated TV series starring the titular big-hearted, big-muscled, addle-brained strongman and a host of other oddball super-folk like Die Fledermaus, American Maid and Sewer Urchin. Ratings and reviews were good, but the audience was skewing older than the network expected or wanted for purposes of toy merchandising and advertising sales, so The Tick was exterminated before its time. It’s been revived as a live action series twice, but neither remake ran as long as the animated original.
Pinky and the Brain – “A Pinky and The Brain Christmas” (S1E8-1995)
The Brain’s latest outlandish world conquest scheme leads him and Pinky to infiltrate Santa’s workshop at the North Pole in an absurdly funny and surprisingly moving adventure.
First introduced as a recurring segment on wacky animated anthology Animaniacs (1993-1998) and later spun into four seasons of their own series (1995-1998), Pinky and the Brain had an inventively bizarre premise: two genetically altered lab mice engaged in an endless series of nightly world conquest schemes. It sounds too weird to work, but the cartoon’s writers crafted dozens of smartly comical stories from that strange idea starring the perfectly mismatched odd couple of megalomaniacal genius Brain and his cheerfully clueless sidekick Pinky, brilliantly voiced by Maurice LaMarche and Rob Paulsen, respectively. A network-mandated revamp converted the series into Pinky, Elmyra & the Brain (teaming the rodent duo with animal-loving simpleton Elmyra from Tiny Toon Adventures), but it only lasted a single season in 1998-1999. Pinky and the Brain have since returned as co-stars of the recent Animaniacs revival.
The New Batman Adventures – “Holiday Knights” (S1E1-1997)
This polished anthology episode’s three holiday shorts include a Harley Quinn/Poison Ivy larcenous Christmas shopping spree, Batgirl & the GCPD vs. Clayface, and Batman & Robin vs. the Joker’s New Year’s evil.
Critical and commercial hit Batman: the Animated Series (1993-1995 series plus tie-in movies), possibly the best version of Batman in any medium, returned in slightly revamped form in 1997-1998, paired with Superman cartoons to form an hour-long block as The New Batman/Superman Adventures. The new series was set in roughly the same continuity as the earlier Batman: the Animated Series, with many of the same characters, voice actors and creative personnel from the previous show carrying over into the Batman segments, but the animation style was streamlined to better match the style set by Superman: the Animated Series in 1996 and various characters were redesigned. The Batman segments of The New Batman/Superman Adventures are often packaged as a final season of Batman: the Animated Series in syndicated reruns and home video. The animated DC Universe continuity seen here continued in later series, notably Justice League and its superb successor Justice League Unlimited.
Also worth watching: Batman: The Animated Series episode “Christmas With The Joker” (S1E38-1992), in which the Clown Prince of Crime takes over Gotham’s TV airwaves with a Christmas special designed to lure Batman to his doom.
A Nero Wolfe Mystery – “Wolfe Goes Out” (S1E6&7-2001)
Airing in Canada and the USA as two back-to-back wintry episodes (“Door to Death” and “Christmas Party”), eccentric armchair detective Nero Wolfe (Maury Chaykin) ventures out of his comfortable office and into the snowy countryside on an ill-fated quest for an orchid expert, then gets entangled in a murder at a holiday soiree attended by his rakish right hand man Archie Goodwin (Timothy Hutton).
Based on the Rex Stout mystery novels, the series was a stylish and faithful adaptation of the Nero Wolfe tales, an example of the “armchair detective” mystery genre where masterminds solve mysteries from the comfort of home. High-priced private detective Wolfe almost never leaves his luxurious brownstone, sending out operatives like Archie and Saul Panzer (Conrad Dunn) to gather the clues and handle the rough stuff while Wolfe pieces everything together.
Many of the TV series’ episodes were crafted as movie-length entries but separated into hour-long blocks for airing in the US and Canada. Also notable was the show’s use of a repertory company of regular actors who played different characters in each mystery, though Wolfe, Archie and other key recurring characters were always played by the same people. Good reviews and good ratings weren’t enough to prevent premature cancellation after two seasons (2001-2002), a casualty of its home channel A&E radically rebranding itself as a junk reality TV destination in search of younger viewers.
Justice League – “Comfort and Joy” (S2E23-2003)
The Leaguers take a memorable winter break as Superman and Martian Manhunter enjoy a Kent family Christmas in Smallville, Green Lantern and Hawkgirl compare their very different approaches to holiday merriment, and the Flash races to find a special Christmas gift for orphans.
Inheriting the characters, continuity and design sensibility of The New Batman/Superman Adventures, Justice League teamed Batman and Superman with the Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkgirl, Martian Manhunter and Wonder Woman as a super-group of superheroes based on the comic book Justice League of America introduced in 1960 (which in turn was inspired by 1940s comic book super-team the Justice Society of America). The result was two seasons of well-crafted adventure stories spanning 2001-2004, but change-of-pace holiday treat “Comfort and Joy” stands out as the best episode of that entire run. The series was replaced by the more experimental Justice League Unlimited (featuring a newly expanded version of the League set in the same continuity), which remains perhaps the best overall version of the Justice League in any medium to date, though the densely serialized drama Young Justice (in which the League are mostly supporting characters) and the short-form, comedy-infused Justice League Action series are also worth watching.
Doctor Who – “The Runaway Bride” (2006)
When fiery-tempered, sharp-tongued bride Donna Noble (Catherine Tate) is randomly teleported out of her wedding and into the Doctor’s TARDIS craft, the reluctant duo’s efforts to get her to the church on time expose a horrific alien menace.
After the BBC’s 2005 revival of long-dormant franchise Doctor Who (1963-1989 & 1996), in which enigmatic alien the Doctor travels through time and space seeking adventure, the revamped series started a new holiday tradition of airing a special Christmas episode each year, doing so for most of 2005-2017. One of their best holiday specials is definitely madcap screwball comedy adventure “The Runaway Bride” (set between seasons two and three), partly for its introduction of classic character Donna Noble, but also for the first pairing of now-longtime friends and collaborators David Tennant (as the Doctor) and Catherine Tate (as Donna), whose instant chemistry led to further team-ups on future projects, ranging from the entire fourth season of Doctor Who to Disney’s excellent Ducktales reboot.
Also worth watching: Most of the Christmas specials are good, but standouts include “Voyage of the Damned” (2007) in which the Doctor tries to prevent a spacefaring replica of the Titanic from crashing into Earth, and “A Christmas Carol” (2010) in which the Doctor tries to reform an icy-hearted miser and save another spaceship in distress.
DuckTales – “How Santa Stole Christmas!” (S3E18-2020)
One of the show’s weirdest running gags, Scrooge McDuck’s vendetta against Santa Claus, is explained in the funny, touching tale of how Santa and Scrooge started out as friends whose clashing approaches to Christmas drove them apart.
The original DuckTales series (1987-1990) featuring Scrooge McDuck and his grand-nephews Huey, Dewie and Louie plus assorted supporting characters was a well-made Disney cartoon by the standards of the day, but still thinly characterized kid stuff. Its revival (2017-2021) was a quantum leap forward in terms of quality, maturity and versatility, still kid-friendly but with a darker sensibility, weirder stories, more character development, a serialized narrative approach and a bigger, richer cast of key characters. The show’s untimely demise after just three seasons marks the second-worst egregious early cancellation of a Disney series (the worst being The Owl House ending all too soon), but its too-short run includes some fine Christmas tales.
Also worth watching: “The Impossible Summit of Mt. Neverrest!” (S1E3) in which Scrooge and the gang spend their Christmas climbing the titular mountain, and “Last Christmas!” (S2E6) in which Scrooge’s visit with three familiar holiday ghosts goes horribly wrong and Dewey accidentally time-travels into an adventure with child-aged versions of his mother and uncle, Della and Donald Duck.
The Flintstones – “Christmas Flintstone” (1964)
Happy Days – “Guess Who’s Coming to Christmas” (1974)
Tiny Toon Adventures – “It’s A Wonderful Tiny Toons Christmas Special” (1992)
Poirot – “Hercule Poirot’s Christmas” (1994)
Buffy the Vampire Slayer – “Amends” (1998)
Gilmore Girls – “Forgiveness and Stuff” (2000)
Gilmore Girls – “In the Clamor and the Clangor” (2004)
Veronica Mars – “An Echolls Family Christmas” (2004)
Gilmore Girls – “Women of Questionable Morals” (2005)
Monk – “Mr. Monk Meets His Dad” (2006)
The Emperor’s New School – “A Giftmas Story” (2007)
The Big Bang Theory – “The Bath Item Gift Hypothesis” (2008)
Chuck – “Chuck Versus Santa Claus” (2008)
Community – “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” (2010)
Psych – “The Polarizing Express” (2010)
Chuck – “Chuck Versus the Santa Suit” (2011)
My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic – “Hearthbreakers” (2015)
Be Cool, Scooby-Doo! – “Scary Christmas” (2015)
My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic – “A Hearth’s Warming Tail” (2016)
Ultimate Spider-Man – “The Moon Knight Before Christmas” (2016)
Legends of Tomorrow – “Beebo the God of War” (2017)
Bonus Guilty Pleasure (so bad it’s sort of good):
G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero – “COBRA Claws Are Coming to Town” (1985)