By Alan Hurst
This is an exercise in pure nostalgia. Just like my favourite Christmas movies were primarily released or filled with a 1940s sensibility, my favourite TV episodes with a Christmas theme are primarily from the sixties and seventies, with a few more recent additions. Most of these are things my sisters and I tried to watch every year – to the point where we could recite dialogue. With the advent of VHS and then DVD, they’re now a permanent staple.
My very subjective list of favourite Christmas-themed TV episodes:
10. The Lucy Show – “Lucy the Choirmaster” (1965)
After The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour ended its run in 1960, Lucille Ball came back to television with The Lucy Show in 1962. She only did two Christmas episodes and this one from season four stands out for me because it’s the character’s first Christmas in California since moving from the east, so there’s no snow, only pastel coloured fake trees and a light touch of melancholy. There’s a nice scene with the proprietor of a Christmas tree lot, some silly fun around the wrapping of Lucy’s boss’ presents and some typical Lucy physical comedy involving a boy’s choir and some roller skates. Visually, what I really like about this episode is the mid-sixties feel of everything – the colors, the clothes, the sets. A nice bit of sixties sitcom fun.
9. The Doris Day Show – “It’s Christmas Time in the City” (1970)
The Doris Day Show enjoyed a healthy five season run on CBS despite multiple formats and not the wittiest of scripts, but this is one of the series’ stronger episodes. Doris’ character is holding a Christmas Eve party at her San Francisco apartment with her family and friends, much to the chagrin of her Scrooge-like neighbour. He refuses to come to the party and complains incessantly about the noise. But Doris’ rendition of the song “Silver Bells” (which he overhears) softens the neighbour’s heart and he joins in the festivities. Again, typical lightweight sitcom fare but you can’t go wrong with Doris Day singing Christmas songs and Billy DeWolfe is fun as the persnickety neighbour.
8. All in the Family – “The Draft Dodger” (1976)
Definitely the most serious episode on my list and probably the best of the many Christmas-themed episodes that this ground-breaking series produced. Through circumstance, a friend of Archie’s (Pinky) and a friend of Mike’s (David) are invited to spend Christmas together with the Bunkers. David is a draft dodger living in Canada and Pinky has lost a son in the Vietnam War. A heated discussion ensues between Archie, David and Mike, with Pinky ultimately saying that if his son was alive, he would want to sit down to Christmas dinner with David. It’s an incredibly powerful episode with Carroll O’Connor as Archie building to a volcanic explosion of anger as his core beliefs are challenged, with the underlying theme of peace at Christmas ultimately prevailing. This is the kind of thing that All in the Family excelled at during it’s run in the seventies. O’Conner won a well-deserved Emmy for this episode.
7. I Love Lucy – “The I Love Lucy Christmas Show” (1956)
The most popular sitcom of the fifties and the only Christmas episode they filmed. It was aired just once and wasn’t part of the full series syndication package that we had been watching for many years, so most people never knew it even existed. It finally resurfaced after Lucille Ball died and there was a frenzy for anything “Lucy”. It has been a staple on CBS ever since (although unfortunately in a garish colorized treatment). It’s a simple story about the travails of putting up a Christmas tree under Lucy’s direction and getting everything ready for Christmas morning – interspersed with clips from past episodes. Everything is nicely wrapped up with an homage the “real” Santa Claus. The interplay between the characters is relaxed and fun and it’s a treat to see some old clips as they reminisce.
6. Modern Family – “Express Christmas” (2011)
Of the current group of sitcoms, Modern Family seems to be owning the Christmas theme and this well-executed episode is one of the reasons why. It’s mid-December and realizing they won’t all be able to be together on December 25, Phil comes up with the idea to pair everyone off and pull together a Christmas celebration that same day – hence the show’s title “Express Christmas”. Of course, things go awry with the food, the shopping, the decorating and Phil accidentally gets tasered by Manny. This episode really highlights how well this cast works together, excelling as they do at both verbal and physical comedy. It also highlights the show’s heart – this is a family with flaws, but they’re always there for each other.
5. Everybody Loves Raymond – “The Christmas Picture” (1999)
One of the things that Everybody Loves Raymond did better than any other sitcom during its run was take the ordinary and make it hysterical. One of the running gags of the show was Ray’s inability to get a Christmas gift that his mother and father actually like or would use. This is probably the series’ best Christmas episode because it brings everyone’s passive aggressive behaviour to the fore as Ray attempts to get the entire family together for a Christmas portrait, but things go off the rails when his mother (the wonderful Doris Roberts) realizes that the portrait will include her daughter-in-law’s parents as well. This is one of the classic episodes of the series as Ray attempts to make everyone happy – before eventually having a comedic meltdown. The group here represents one of the best ensembles in TV history.
4. The Dick Van Dyke Show – “Alan Brady Presents” (1963)
The Dick Van Dyke Show was the perfect blend of home and office, with Van Dyke playing Rob Petrie, head writer of the fictional Alan Brady Show. This episode brings together Rob’s family and office mates in a variety show centered around Christmas. There’s no plot, just a series of comedic musical numbers featuring the show’s cast – Dick Van Dyke, Mary Tyler Moore, Rose Marie, Morey Amsterdam, Richard Deacon and Carl Reiner (as the fictional Alan Brady). It’s a perfect festive pastiche of the sixties variety show format, with standout performances from everyone, particularly Rose Marie singing a comical ballad to Santa, and Van Dyke and Moore in a charming song and dance as street corner Santas.
3. Bewitched – “Humbug Not to Be Spoken Here” (1967)
Bewitched probably had the most success with weaving Christmas into storylines, with four strong episodes over the show’s eight season run – “A Vision of Sugar Plums” (1965), “Santa Comes to Visit and Stays and Stays” (1969), and “Sisters at Heart” (1970), an interesting story focused on race. But “Humbug Not to Be Spoken Here” is the best – a nice and colourful twist on Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” with the wonderful character actor Charles Lane as the Scrooge-like client of McMann and Tate who insists on doing business on Christmas. Enter Elizabeth Montgomery’s witch as Lane’s “ghost” who takes him to the North Pole on her broom to visit Santa. While simplistic, the episode is a lot of fun, Santa’s workshop is magical, and Montgomery is – as always – a delight as Samantha, the witch trying to live a normal life in a mortal world.
2. The Flintstones – “Christmas Flintstone” (1964)
A distinct memory for us as kids is watching this episode as we were sorting presents under the tree for the 100th time. For those who haven’t seen it, it has Fred Flintstone moonlighting as a department store Santa to make extra money for Christmas. But the real Santa has come down with a cold and needs Fred to fill in on Christmas Eve. It’s one of the series’ strongest half hours and the animators do a wonderful job of turning the characters’ homes, the department store and the town of Bedrock into idyllic images of Christmas and Christmas shopping, all supported with a great message for kids (and kids at heart). There are also a couple of earworm songs used in the episode that are impossible to get out of your head after you hear them. Be warned.
1. The Mary Tyler Moore Show – “Christmas and the Hard Luck Kid II” (1970)
This show did everything well and this episode from the first season is no exception. It’s both a touching and funny story about Mary Richards (Mary Tyler Moore) realizing that TV news doesn’t take a holiday, so she’ll be working Christmas Day and, because she feels sorry for a co-worker, Christmas Eve. It’s clearly the first time the character hasn’t been able to go home for Christmas and the combination of her pluckiness and sadness as she deals with it is moving, thanks to a great script and top-notch performances from Moore and Valerie Harper as her sidekick Rhoda. There are some wonderful scenes involving Mary, Rhoda and Phyllis, and Moore does beautifully with her solo scene near the end. This was one of the first times a sitcom dealt realistically with the challenges that sometimes come with the holidays. An interesting side note – the title for this episode leverages the same title that writer director James L. Brooks (Terms of Endearment) used for another Christmas episode he wrote for That Girl in 1966: “Christmas and the Hard Luck Kid”, also worth watching.
Hooked from a first viewing of Mary Poppins at four and after school reruns of I Love Lucy, Alan has been a movie and TV enthusiast ever since. A particular aficionado of films from the late thirties through the seventies, he enjoys helping others discover the joys of those films, directors and stars. His career has careened from journalism to public relations to marketing, always with one foot in the arts and with a unique ability to relate all work and life experiences back to a movie. Alan’s top five desert island films are Bonnie and Clyde, Sunset Boulevard, Cabaret, Mildred Pierce and, with no apologies, Mary Poppins. Alan’s focus will be on films from Hollywood’s first golden era (and a little beyond) as well as TV.