The very first full-length episode of "The Simpsons" ever aired (that’s right, trivia nerd; no one actually counts the bizarre Tracey Ullman Show shorts) was a Christmas episode, "Simpsons Roasting On An Open Fire." That episode, which ends with the titular family adopting a greyhound named Santa’s Little Helper, began the run of what was once the greatest American satire on television. It also established an unwritten rule of the show: Christmas episodes are unpredictable.
While every season of "The Simpsons" brings us a new "Treehouse of Horror" episode, less than half of the show’s seasons thus far have featured a Christmas episode (12 to date, over 25 seasons and 500 episodes). Everyone has their favourite "Simpsons" Christmas special, and in a way, they’re all winners.
But in another, more accurate way, one of them is better than all the rest. And unless Gil is your favourite Simpsons character (or you really enjoy Katy Perry cameos), you won’t really miss the underwhelming episodes we've banished to the land of wind and ghosts.
Without further ado, here’s the top 7 Christmas episodes of "The Simpsons", from worst to best. Up and at them!
7. "Simpson Christmas Stories" (Season 17, 2005)
In later seasons, "The Simpsons" increasingly found itself throwing together so-called "anthology episodes," which found the main cast participating in re-tellings of every possible story, from Grimm’s Fairy Tales to a bizarre segment where the Sex Pistols were played by children (Sid and Nancy are addicted to candy, and that’s actually the least horrible part of the episode).
While the format can work wonders at the right time (literally any "Treehouse of Horror" episode), in episodes like "Simpson Christmas Stories," it serves to reduce every character to a broad stereotype of their usual selves. In a retelling of the birth of Jesus story, the three Wise Men are played by Principal Skinner, Dr. Hibbert, and Professor “Makes-You-Laugh, Makes-You-Think” Frink. They each stick around long enough to make a joke apiece, and then are quickly abandoned for the next gag character.
When the episode isn't trotting out a cavalcade of characters for a quick round of name-that-catchphrase, it’s being surprisingly mean-spirited. One of the final segments is simply a montage of the ways Moe tries (and fails) to commit suicide on Christmas Eve. Nothing says Christmas like weirdly cruel humour at the expense of the show’s most pathetic character, right?
This Episode’s Gift to Pop Culture: We get to see the return of the Flying Hellfish! World War II era Abe and Burnsie return in an insane segment where they accidentally shoot down Santa’s sleigh over the Pacific ocean, and piece it back together using downed fighter planes. Stupid sexy Grandpa.
6. "She Of Little Faith" (Season 13, 2001)
I’ve said it once before, but it bears repeating now: Lisa-centric episodes are a vital part of "The Simpsons," but they’re really hard sells. Certain episode concepts immediately sound entertaining (“What if Homer’s new boss was a James Bond villain?”), but Lisa’s speak to the heart and soul of the show itself; more often than not, she is the voice that keeps her family accountable and human (a quality arguably absent from similar shows like "Family Guy," and even from modern-era "Simpsons" itself).
An episode about a little girl struggling with vegetarianism, or pushing for one day of daddy-daughter bonding a week doesn't sound like a great comedic romp for most people. However, the Lisa episodes make up for their decreased laugh-a-minute ratio with sincerity and heart, and the best episodes of "The Simpsons" expertly balance both. So this episode, which starts with Homer crashing a hamster-piloted rocket constructed by his college buddies (NEEEEEERD!) into Reverend Lovejoy’s church, explores an often-ignored part of Christmas: faith.
Yes, this is the episode where Lisa learns Buddhism from Richard Gere. Yes, much like (OK, exactly like) the vegetarianism episode, the ultimate moral is for her to be tolerant of other views while maintaining her own. And, much like (OK, exactly like) the vegetarianism episode, that moral is taught to her in the final minutes by a celebrity guest star. But the episode as a whole is a pretty damning indictment of mega-churches, corporatism in Christianity, and the idea of hoisting a complex spiritual message on children. Also, it has a hamster astronaut named Nibbles.
This Episode’s Gift To Pop Culture: “The word ‘un-blow-up-able’ is thrown around a lot these days.”
5. "Grift Of The Magi" (Season 11, 1999)
This episode ends with Gary Coleman fighting off a legion of Terminator-esque robot dolls in a junkyard. For that alone, it deserves to be remembered. After Springfield Elementary is bankrupted by Principal Skinner’s debt to Valdazzo Bros. Olive Oil construction company, the school is purchased and privatized by Kid First Industries. So begins one of the show’s best skewerings of corporate absurdism (Lisa complains that one of their guest speakers was “Phil from Marketing”).
After extensive focus testing on Springfield’s children, the final product is released: Funzo, a timely (in 1999) send-up of Furby. This episode makes the list simply because it’s consistently funny; from Fat Tony’s unsubtle intimidation tactics, to Homer’s Christmas win-loss ratio (he’s ruined the holiday eight times, saved it thrice, and two times were a tie), the show is in fine form.
This Episode’s Gift To Pop Culture: Funzo. He’s very mad at ‘ou.
4. "Miracle On Evergreen Terrace" (Season 9, 1997)
This isn’t the first episode based around the concept of Bart legitimately ruining Christmas for his family. It’s not even the best episode about that, either. But just like Lisa serves a vital role as her family’s conscience, it is equally important that Bart, as a character, is kept from being an amoral devil child. He’s a prankster (El Barto, anyone?), and he has a well-established rep for being rude, but he ultimately feels remorse when he winds up honestly hurting someone. This episode succeeds at demonstrating that.
In this episode, Bart accidentally melts his family’s Christmas tree, buries the evidence of the lost tree and presents, and capitalizes on the ill-gotten support from the townsfolk. And that last point is where this episode shines. The citizens of Springfield are most commonly portrayed as an easily-manipulated mob of idiots (not unlike a mule with a spinning wheel) who sometimes do the right thing. Kent Brockman’s reports on the family’s predicament give him some of his best lines since he, for one, welcomed our new insect overlords.
The final scenes of this episode, which see the residents of Springfield preferring to rob the Simpsons rather than hold a grudge, give quick character moments to everyone from Otto, to Comic Book Guy, to a Dickensian orphan known only as Poor Violet (who gave the Simpsons her medicine money). In the end, Bart’s mistake brings the entire town together, if only to rob a family of everything they own except a lone washcloth. A mix of rapid-fire (and highly quotable) humour, character-based sentiment, and a message of togetherness is the recipe for every Golden Age "Simpsons" episode worth talking about.
This Episode’s Gift To Pop Culture: Everything Kent Brockman says: "In my long career, I've seen some pretty shabby things, but this putrid fraud outstinks them all." "Strong words. Strong, bewildering words."
And to a lesser extent, Krusty’s creation of various slang terms for money: "shlamola," "missoulians," and "kablingy." One of those must have caught on by now.
3. "Holidays Of Future Passed" (Season 23, 2011)
After all that lip service (read: hardcore elitism) I’ve paid to the “Golden Age” of The Simpsons, it may surprise you to see a recent Christmas special this high up on the list. To be fair, this episode may be the least funny of any of the ones on this list, but it offers us something we've never seen before: Bart and Lisa, drunk off their asses, complaining about the stresses of keeping a family together.
This episode returns the show to the surprisingly-consistent future timeline first outlined in the Season 6 episode "Lisa’s Wedding," in which a fortune teller shows Lisa her future engagement (and falling out) with a charming British man named Hugh (and voiced by Mandy Patinkin, of all people). The show has visited this future timeline four times in total, each time edging forward to show things like Lisa’s eventual unhappy Marriage to Milhouse, and Bart’s failed business ventures. These flash-forwards have been anything but consistent; Entertainment Weekly called "Bart’s Future" the show’s worst episode ever. (If only there were a relevant quote for that statement. Oh well.)
To be fair, "Holidays Of Future Passed" has tons of gimmicks, from Maggie still managing to be mute for the whole episode, to Grampa being stored indefinitely in cryogenic sleep. But the episode is a shocker (and a fantastic Christmas special) because it dares to show us another world, one where the Simpsons family was allowed to age, mature, and grow as people as well as characters. Bart and Lisa both end up seeing themselves as failed parents, and they speak openly of Homer’s faults as a father, while not understanding how he could possibly succeed as a grandfather (which he does).
Millions of people have grown up with the Simpsons, and this episode took the bold move of acknowledging the growth in its fans by letting its main cast grow up as well, if only for Christmas. So when Bart and Lisa get drunk and verbally trash their parents, it’s a shockingly human and relatable moment. The episode’s climactic montage, which shows every Christmas photo Marge ever took (or ever will take) of her family, brings all of the episode’s themes together in a gut-punch of a finale. If you've ever given up on modern Simpsons, this Christmas special comes highly recommended.
This Episode’s Gift To Pop Culture: In the future, airplanes are driven through the air by insane, leather-clad barbarians, in an obvious tribute to "Mad Max." Some things never change.
2. "Simpsons Roasting On An Open Fire" (Season 1, 1989)
The episode that literally started it all. Bart gets a tattoo, Homer gets a mall santa job, Maggie gets her catchphrase (Can a sound be a catchphrase? "Community" has some thoughts on the matter), and the family gets a second pet. The first season of "The Simpsons" was a different creature than what it would ultimately become; the absurdity was grounded, the characters subdued. Future seasons would see the family visiting everywhere from Japan, to Britain, to faraway Canada, all tucked away down there. At this point in the show, a major plot point revolves around Homer’s tiny paycheque forcing him to shop for his family at the dollar store.
Some find the earliest episodes of "The Simpsons" nigh-unwatchable, but even here, you can see the key elements of what would make the show work so well. Homer’s gift to his family ends up being borne not out of the money he scrapes together, but his willingness to adopt an abused greyhound when it needed him the most. They may be a group of yellow-skinned, four-fingered mutants, but the Simpsons have always tried to be good people. Their very first Christmas special helped set the tone.
This Episode’s Gift To Pop Culture: Three words: SANTA’S LITTLE HELPER. And, by logical extension, "See My Vest".
1. "Marge Be Not Proud" (Season 7, 1995)
After debuting the entire series with a Christmas episode, it would be years until "The Simpsons" attempted another. Something special must have happened to make them return to that well; they had obviously done very well for themselves without relying on annual yuletide specials. This episode was inspired by an event from writer Mike Scully’s childhood, where he shoplifted an item only to later return it to the store. The drama and stakes of this episode are extremely realistic; nothing is as stake other than a mother’s faith in her son. And that’s why this episode is the best Christmas special the series has ever created.
After Bart is immediately enraptured by the commercial for a mega-violent video game brilliantly called Bonestorm (Tagline: “Buy me Bonestorm or GO TO HELL!”), a series of setbacks and blatant peer pressure from the school bullies leads to him shoplifting the game from the local Try-N-Save, only to be caught by store security as he heads out the door. At the same time, Marge is trying to keep the family together long enough to finally have one good Christmas photo together (after years of Bart ruining every single one), to be taken the next day at (surprise!) the Try-N-Save.
Bart doesn’t ruin Christmas; he doesn’t even successfully shoplift. The cops are never brought into the matter, and store security Detective Don Brodka (that’s right; Don Brodka) mostly floats a future in juvenile hall as a theoretical outcome, not a real threat. Bart’s failure is personal and devastating because he loses the trust of the one person he never thought he would manage to push away: his Mom. Marge’s pain and distrust of Bart, who she fears has finally gone from prankster to full-blown criminal delinquent, is realistic without bringing "The Simpsons" into the realm of melodrama. As Bart fears he’s being iced out of his family, he makes one last effort to make good on what he’s done. The reveal of his gift to Marge is one of the most tear-jerking scenes in the show’s history, right up there with "DO IT FOR HER" and Homer and Marge’s prom.
To exclusively focus on the (fantastic, well-paced, and brilliantly-executed) emotional core of the episode is to ignore the other reason it’s the best Christmas special in Simpsons history: it’s completely funny. This is the episode that not only gave us Bonestorm, but also THRILLHOUSE. It gave us Nelson hiding a vest under his vest, Gavin (the horrible kid who tells his mom to shut up), Marge calling herself "a big lame," and Camp Granada. Even one of those jokes would launch this episode into the upper echelons of pop culture history, but all of them together in 22 minutes is almost embarrassingly brilliant.
And to top it all off, it ends with possibly the single funniest credits gag in Simpsons history, to the point where I had no idea that Lee Carvallo wasn’t a real golfer. Is there really any other Christmas episode that can compare to this? You have selected: "No."
This Episode’s Gift To Pop Culture:
That is all.
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