Whether they air on Christmas Day itself or a few days beforehand, a staple of festive television is the sitcom Christmas episode. In American productions such as Friends or The Office these are typically part of the sitcoms’ ongoing Seasons, while in British shows like Gavin & Stacey or Outnumbered, they tend to be specials which often receive a lot of attention in TV guides.
Whenever they air and whatever the production context, they are usually a highlight of people’s festive TV schedule, and provide a chance for the family to sit back, relax and have a good laugh together. As Christmas 2020 approaches, it would be fair to say that we are all in need of a good laugh in the tail-end of a frankly dreadful year, and could certainly do with something feel-good to lift our spirits.
Thankfully, we live in the age of streaming services, which means that we do not have to wait until 8pm on Christmas Day to watch feel-good, festive episodes of our favourite sitcoms. To lift your spirits in what lyricists have long-since deemed the most wonderful time of the year, here are 5 feel-good festive sitcom episodes which are available to watch now on streaming services and will help get you in the mood for the holidays. By no means do you have to be a long-term fan of any of these sitcoms to enjoy these – in fact, some of them you do not need to have watched a single episode of – that’s the beauty of the self-contained nature of many of their episodes.
1. Christmas Show | The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air
Where To Watch: Available on Netflix
The screenwriters of the iconic Will Smith sitcom set the bar high with the show’s excellent original Christmas episode, in which the class differences between Will and his rich relatives were apparent in their incredibly different tastes in Christmas decorations. However, with this – the second festive episode – they managed to raise the bar with an episode that is ultimately even more feel-good.
Following a prologue which boasts witty jokes that illustrate the class differences between Will and his cousins (this time in their views on skiing), the Fresh Prince and the Bankses arrive at a mountain cabin in Utah to spend Christmas with the extended family on Aunt Viv’s side. Everyone is in good spirits – especially Will’s mother, Vy, to the shock of the family – but it may not be such a holly-jolly Christmas after a burglary leaves them “picked cleaner than Pavarotti’s chicken bones.”
A family being burgled on Christmas Eve does not sound like a premise for feel-good festive television, but it is the events before and after the burglary that will leave you feeling a sense of warmth. The family are ecstatic to be reunited (and the women filled with joy when Janice confides that she might be pregnant), and it is in this emphasis on family where the true heart of the episode lies. Although initially in a foul mood on Christmas morning, as they sit down and reflect on past Christmases, everyone’s anger turns to joy as they realise what a blessing it is to be part of a family.
The festive season is notorious for consumerism and commercialism, but this final scene emphasises that no object can replace a loved one, and that they are the true gifts in our lives. It is a simple yet beautiful message to convey, and one which will leave the viewer feeling warmed to the heart, regardless of whether they are a long-term Fresh Prince fan. And if you are, then the episode also has everything you expect from the iconic ’90s sitcom – jokes around class and cultural differences, a note-perfect moment of sarcasm from Geoffrey, and banter between Will and Carlton. Speaking of whom – this episode was also the first to feature the legendary Carlton Dance!
2. The Christmas Lunch Incident | The Vicar of Dibley
Where To Watch: Available on Netflix and BBC iPlayer
There are two very common Christmas experiences – one which affects married couples especially, and one which affects almost everyone. The first is deciding who to spend Christmas with – most married couples face that dilemma, especially when it comes to their first Christmas post-wedding, while some bachelors get multiple invitations if it transpires that they are not spending the holidays with their parents. The second is overeating – somehow our appetites quadruple in size once a year, and on Boxing Day we are left stunned that we somehow managed to eat so much less than 24 hours earlier.
The 1996 Christmas special of this beloved Richard Curtis sitcom managed to brilliantly amalgamate both of these for its premise, through the titular vicar herself. Geraldine gets invited to three different Christmas lunches – one with parish council members Frank and Jim, one with regular thorn-in-side David and his son Hugo, and one with dim-witted verger Alice and her family. Afraid of disappointing someone, Geraldine does the typically British thing and attends all three, and eventually the ever-gluttonous vicar is left struggling to stand. If ever there was a brilliantly British premise for a sitcom special then it is this.
The very well-paced narrative is replete with brilliant verbal gags, such as farmer Owen referring to some Carol-singing children as a “horrible gang of talentless dwarfs”, and Geraldine turning to the portrait of Jesus on the wall and addressing him as “birthday boy”, but the real hilarity is in watching her become increasingly regretful of her predicament with every large plateful. It is a testament to Dawn French’s comedic talents that she makes a sprout-eating contest hilarious through her facial expressions and body language alone, and that she performs Geraldine’s struggles to stand in a manner which is exaggerated but brilliantly plausible.
By the end of this consistently witty festive episode you will be left with a sense of warmth and will never again feel self-conscious about how much you devour on Christmas Day.
3. The One With The Holiday Armadillo | Friends
Where To Watch: Available on Netflix
Friends had multiple Christmas episodes during its 10-year-run, but if you ask any fan which one they were most entertained by, chances are they will say The One With The Holiday Armadillo from Season 7. Ross is delighted to have his son Ben with him for the holidays, but is adamant that he will not dress up as Santa as he intends to teach the boy about Hanukkah and give him a greater understanding of his Jewish heritage.
Ross’s initial efforts are unsuccessful – Ben is excited about Christmas and a visit from Santa, which his father ends up promising to avoid upsetting the chipper chap. However, with Santa costumes unavailable, Ross ends up dressing as the Holiday Armadillo – “a friend of Santa’s” who “sent me here to wish you a Merry Christmas” due to being “unavailable so close to Christmas”. Just when the Holiday Armadillo is about to tell an excited Ben about Hanukkah, Chandler turns up in a Santa costume…and then Joey arrives dressed as Superman.
It is simply impossible to watch this episode without a big smile across your face. From Ross’s excitement in announcing that Ben is coming to stay, to his going all out in an Armadillo costume (which David Schwimmer does with brilliant energy and enthusiasm) to make the boy smile, to seeing Chandler, Joey and Monica pitch in to help Ross, it is a heartwarming episode of people coming together at the most wonderful time of the year. The premise is also one of the most clever of any festive sitcom episodes, as the subject of celebrating other religious holidays is not touched upon that often, let alone the idea of teaching a child excited for Christmas about them. The real brilliance though is in the execution, as the characters all come together to celebrate the joyous season together, emphasising with real warmth that the delight of togetherness with loved ones is something which transcends faith and generation.
After watching this episode you will never see an armadillo in quite the same way again, and you will also see why this episode is a favourite among Friends fans. For fans both old and new, this festive episode also gives other members of the ensemble moments to shine which are very in-keeping with their characters. Group oddball Phoebe brings a skull to the apartment to symbolise that people still die during Christmas; man-child Joey is ecstatic with the drum kit Phoebe gives him, but ends up having to play with safety goggles on after his “rock ’n’ roll” drumstick throws result in eye injuries. The running gag of Chandler failing to discreetly slip money into people’s hands proves rather amusing; and Matthew Perry and Courtney Cox’s excellent chemistry shines especially when Monica makes it clear to Chandler that she finds the Santa costume a turn-on.
4. The 2008 Special | Gavin & Stacey
Where To Watch: Available on BritBox and BBC iPlayer
While the Vicar of Dibley accepted three different Christmas lunch invitations to avoid upsetting anyone, Gavin and Stacey manage to avoid having to choose who they spend their first post-wedding Christmas with as his parents host the whole gang, and the spirits are high. Smithy’s delight to be spending Christmas with his son Neil cannot be dampened by knowing that he will also spend it with ex-fling Nessa (Neil’s mother) and her new boyfriend Dave, while Bryn is excited by the novelty of spending Christmas away from Barry Island for the first time – anyone would think that he had gone to Barbados instead of Billericay.
Watching this Christmas special will have you in stitches early on with some typical Gavin & Stacey brilliance. Nessa makes for the least jolly Santa ever (“Now, I don’t want to disappoint you, but I reckon the Xbox is a bit pie in the sky, like. You’d be better off lowering your expectations – I’m thinking Sega Mega Drive, maybe a PlayStation 1.”), and Smithy yells “Oh come on, dickhead” at the driver in front of him, while also cheerfully singing along to Band Aid. These scenes exemplify how Ruth Jones and James Corden are brilliant comedic actors as well as comedy writers. From there the episode remains consistently amusing, with the usual gags around the ensemble’s differing personalities and culture clashes between the Welsh contingent and the Essex lot, and a couple of great one-time jokes, such as Dave taking a break from driving on the motorway by playing Need for Speed in the service station arcade.
The basic heart of the special is found in watching an extended family (including those honorary relatives, which most families have one or two of) spend the festive season together, but the true heart is in how they are able to put differences aside in the spirit of the season. By this point the Smithy-Nessa-Dave love-triangle had begun, but Smithy puts aside his dislike of Dave for the sake of everyone having a good day. Meanwhile, Bryn and Jason put the events of the famous-yet-mysterious fishing trip (an often-mentioned incident from their backstory which led to them not talking for years) behind them for good. By the end you will be filled with warmth, thanks not least to the closing rendition of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” around Mick’s new keyboard – and, thanks to Smithy, you will have a game-changing life-hack which will save you from the headache of cutting and sellotaping wrapping paper ever again.
5. The Bath Item Gift Hypothesis | The Big Bang Theory
Where To Watch: Available on Netflix
Airing midway through Season 2, for fans of the sitcom this first festive outing became an instant favourite.
It opens like any other episode of The Big Bang Theory – Sheldon, Leonard, Raj and Howard are debating how Superman “cleans his uniform”, the only sign that it is the most wonderful time of the year being the decorations in the background. From there, we are treated to something which you would only ever find in this sitcom. When Sheldon learns that Penny has a Christmas gift for him, he is left horrified as he believes that this means that he is obliged to get her one in exchange. This matter is further complicated as he has no idea what she has bought him, so he does exactly what you would expect of Sheldon Cooper – he buys a plethora of different sized gift baskets with the intention of giving her one that is of similar monetary value to whatever she has bought for him.
The premise of choosing a Christmas gift may be simple, but the execution is so typically Big Bang Theory, providing something festive to sit back, relax and just have a good laugh with. We all know how much of a headache it can be to do Christmas shopping, and this episode feels real as we will all see a bit of ourselves in Sheldon’s efforts at buying Penny a gift. He goes through the usual dilemmas – what to buy, how much to spend – but approaches them methodically by asking a poor sales assistant what gift basket sizes indicate about the type of relationships people share, in a manner which leaves her stunned and a little creeped out, and which exemplifies Jim Parsons’s effortless comic timing and delivery in his iconic role.
The true feel-good factor, however, comes in the closing minutes when Sheldon opens Penny’s gift to him. At the start of the episode, Sheldon was (supposedly) sorry to ruin Christmas for Penny by using his encyclopaedic knowledge of the holiday to explain why he does not celebrate it. Forget three ghosts, though – all it takes is a napkin signed by Leonard Nimoy to melt Sheldon’s cold heart, leading the overwhelmed nerd to give Penny all the gift baskets and one present which money could never buy: a hug.
Its first Christmas special has a simple premise with a feel-good conclusion that emphasises that a thoughtful gift can touch anyone, regardless of how much festive spirit they typically have. It is a heartwarming piece of television which can be enjoyed by anyone. When it first aired it became an instant favourite with the fanbase, as it gave hope that Leonard and Penny would eventually get together, while also providing something which nobody expected to see in Sheldon’s concluding hug.
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