In thirty years and thirty seasons, FOX's The Simpsons has had several classic Christmas episodes (with a lot of mediocre ones from the later seasons – D'oh!) Even though the show's premiere episode "Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire" is Christmas-themed, early seasons rarely made Christmas episodes: the show was more recognizable for its Halloween "Treehouse of Horror" episodes.
Even looking at some of the earlier seasons and what they chose to air in late December, it's hard to connect them to the holidays. I wish I could include Season 10, Episode 8, "Mayored to the Mob," which aired December 20th, 1998. It was the greatest Christmas gift ever: Mark Hamill on The Simpsons.
So let's instead count down the actual holiday episodes. A quick note: while The Simpsons wiki lists "Bart Gets an F" and "Gone Boy" as Christmas-themed, I'm not including them here since they only include a short moments of snowfall/people singing "Winter Wonderland," and Grandpa Simpson talking about cutting down a Christmas tree, respectively. I'm also not including the short "Simpson Xmas" from The Tracey Ullman Show.
That leaves 16 episodes – so let's get to them!
16. "I Won't Be Home for Christmas"
Season 26, Episode 9
Homer goes to Moe's after work on Christmas Eve and is so excessively late that Marge kicks him out. With no place to go, he ends up at the mall, befriending Flanders, seeing a movie, and crashing a Christmas party: yes, the plot is as thin as it sounds. The one upside? This is the first episode ever to open with a special Christmas opening.
It also features Comic Book Guy and his girlfriend Kumiko watching the Cosmic Wars Holiday Special. Even that can't save this from being the bottom of the heap.
15. "The Nightmare After Krustmas"
Season 28, Episode 10
Krusty converts to Christianity to be closer to his daughter, making him unfunny. On the upside, lots of Krusty the Clown. On the downside: the point of the episode is he's no longer funny. So, it's less funny. There seems to be a design flaw there. Maggie is menaced by "The Gnome in Your Home," exposing just how creepy this idea of home surveillance of children at the holidays is. This episode might have been the bottom of the barrel, except there's a really funny bit near the beginning where they visit a pagan holiday festival celebrating druids, Odin, Baphomet, etc that really redeems it. Enjoy your pagan holiday traditions, everyone!
14. "Simpsons Christmas Stories"
Season 17, Episode 9
When Reverend Lovejoy is late for the Christmas sermon, Homer tells the story of the First Christmas. Then Grandpa tells how Santa screwed him over in WWII. Finally the Simpsons sing along to The Nutcracker because the music isn't under copyright. Highlights: some Three Stooges gags, "…or my name isn't young Grandpa Simpson!", Willie's Christmas-dream-inception, and a surprisingly dark set of Moe's suicide attempts. Yikes. Even more "yikes"? This is fairly uninspired, mediocre stuff.
13. "'Tis the 30th Season"
Season 30, Episode 10
Hey, this episode just aired last week! It's not a good sign when the episode title is a play on a previous episode title. But it's not bad – just sort of there. All the kids want for Christmas is a smart TV, but Marge's Black Friday plans to get one go awry thanks to Homer and Old Gil. To make up for it, they take Marge on a Florida vacation to one of those hotels out of The Florida Project. On the upside, Jane Lynch plays the front desk clerk at the hotel. On the downside, there just isn't more hetre. And not to go all Comic Book Guy, but "Excuse me, but The Simpsons already went to Florida in Spring Break of 2000 in season 11. They met Kid Rock and killed an alligator." What could've been some smart commentary on Black Friday is as played-out as naming your episode after a previous episode.
12. "The Fight Before Christmas"
Season 22, Episode 8
It's another anthology episode, where Bart goes on The Polar Express to confront Santa about not getting him a dirt bike, Lisa is upset about Christmas trees being harvested, and there's a flashback to WWII where Marge is fighting the Germans and re-enacts the theater scene from Inglorious Bastards in order to be home for Christmas. Throw into that mix Marge calling Martha Stewart to help spruce up their drab holiday decor, and Maggie wanting to watch The Fluppets Christmas – which becomes a puppet Simpsons story guest-starring real-life Katy Perry.
It's not bad, and at least with four stories each of them is shorter and we have less time to get bored with them. Highlights: Grandpa and Jasper as puppet Statler and Waldorf, the movie Hitler is watching is like Dumbo bombing London, and The Polar Express runs on weed! The final joke post credits involving Moe and Perry is also one of the dirtiest jokes The Simpsons has ever gotten away with.
11. "Kill Gil, Volumes I & II"
Season 18, Episode 9
Sad sack Old Gil gets fired on Christmas Eve and spends Christmas with the Simpsons and then won't leave for months and months.The episode starts really strong with Krusty's Kristmas on Ice, but sort of goes downhill from there – but the first half is great! The problem is a little Gil goes a long way. He's great in small doses, but building an episode around him is a terrible idea. Highlights: Matrix Poochie, "Tell it to the Utah Jazz, snowflake!" and Homer's episode-long inexplicable fight with The Grumple.
10. "Holidays of Future Passed"
Season 23, Episode 9
This non-canonical "What If"-type episode shows life in the future with Bart and Lisa's kids. While not really cohesive, there are some really funny jokes and gags here and there, including a great Doctor Who joke, cloned Ralph Wiggums, and digs at technology and companies like Google. ("You've enslaved half the population, but you're still a great search engine.") It also has some nice, sentimental takes on family and holidays. We'll give you a pass on this one, Simpsons.
9. "White Christmas Blues"
Season 25, Season 8
Global Warming means no snow at Christmas anywhere in the US – except in Springfield, thanks to a unique microclimate caused by pollution from the nuclear plant and the tire fire, so the entire town is inundated with tourists. The Simpsons open up their home to boarders to make a lot of holiday cash, and Lisa tries to pick great Christmas gifts for everyone. Props to the show for having a cohesive episode with something to say that is actually satirical of the holiday season, but the real gems here are the numerous gags about terrible holiday specials and other state license plates. While those overly-long gags feel more Family Guy than Simpsons, they still work.
8. "Skinner's Sense of Snow"
Season 12, Episode 8
Principal Skinner tries to keep his record of consecutive days having the school open and refuses to cancel class the last day before the holiday break despite a "Class 3 Killstorm." Several feet of snow trap the children and Skinner in the school, and Bart leads a revolt that takes Skinner hostage. That part is passably good, but the best parts of the episode involve Ned and Homer trying to plow their way to the school. This includes the absolute best scene in the episode where it's clear Homer doesn't remember ever being "Mr. Plow," despite wearing the jacket and still being able to sing the song.
7. "Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire"
Season 01, Episode 1
This is it– the one that started them all. This was the literal first full-length episode of the show and, for the most part, still holds up. My nerd OCD makes me cringe a couple of times at characters having different hair colors (Moe) or different voices (Todd Flanders). . . and the Flanders would never have decorations that say "Merry Xmas" because of how Jesus-y Ned is – but it still works. Homer doesn't get his Christmas bonus, Marge has to spend their Christmas savings on a tattoo removal for Bart, and Lisa wants a pony, so Homer takes a second job as a mall Santa. After getting a meager check for his Santa work, Homer and Bart go to the dog track with Barney to try to parlay their money into more. They bet on a new dog named Santa's Little Helper, who comes in last place and is abandoned by his owner – so Homer and Bart take him home and it's the happiest Christmas ever. A lot of the jokes still work, and the sentiment certainly holds us. It's a classic, but only a taste of what was to come, so it ends up in the middle of our list.
6. "'Tis the Fifteenth Season"
Season 15, Episode 7
Homer blows his Christmas bonus on an Astrolabe trinket, leading him to reflect on his greed after seeing the Mister Magoo Christmas Carol. When he goes to the other extreme, Flanders becomes jealous of Homer's charity and generosity to the point of giving everyone in town a Christmas present. Now wanting to one-up Flanders, Homer is reminded by little Buddhist Lisa that maybe Christmas would be better without attachment to material things – so he re-enacts The Grinch and steals everyone's presents. The town doesn't appreciate being robbed – until Flanders and Homer make up, tell a secular version of the Christmas story (you can't talk about Jesus on city property), and give back everyone's gifts. There's a lot of great jokes in here, including a gag involving Moleman thinking wolves are rescue dogs, the upscale mall's motto: "Springfield Heights Promenade: Our Prices Discriminate So We Don't Have To," and Homer's Christmas declaration:
"Let's just say that on this day, a million years ago, a dude was born who most of us think was magic, but others don't and that's cool. But we're probably right. Amen."
Finally, there's the moment when in the middle of Flanders' jealous rant at Homer's charity, Rod exclaims: "I'm jealous of girls 'cause they get to wear dresses." Flanders' response? "One problem at a time, boy!"
5. "Dude, Where's My Ranch?"
Season 14, Episode 18
This is perhaps the most controversial of these picks, because this isn't technically a full Christmas episode: it premiered in April! I'm pulling "point of personal privilege" here… so it starts at Christmas with the family caroling door-to-door, including visits to Mr. Burns and Krusty the Clown. When they stop at the home of the blue-haired lawyer, he demands they cease and desist singing copyright-protected songs, so Homer decides to write his own Christmas carol. This ends up attracting the neighborhood's biggest Jesus fan Flanders, who pitches a song about "there's a stranger in the manger." Homer then is inspired to write a Flanders-diss track, which ends up attracting the attention of former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne.
With his help, the song becomes such a hit that the Simpsons feel the need to flee from Springfield. . . to a dude ranch. And wackiness ensues there, including Lisa getting a crush on a young, liberal cowboy – but none of that has to do with Christmas. But the opening is so Christmasy, it's worthy of inclusion here. Plus – and that Flanders song is genius!
4. "Miracle on Evergreen Terrace"
Season 09, Episode 9
Bart ruins Christmas by accidentally burning down the Christmas tree and presents, burying it in the yard, and blaming it on a "prowler." When the town turns out to give the Simpson family a merry Christmas a la It's a Wonderful Life, Bart feels guilty for what he did and confesses. When the town finds out what he did, the family become pariahs and fugitives. This is so classic. It has some of the best jokes of Simpsons Christmas episodes, like Bart teasing Lisa that her present is a sweater – likely yellow: "Lisa, put down that yellow sweater and…" After finding out what Bart did, Lisa goes to strangle him: Lisa: "Why you little!" / Bart: "Lisa, no! Your hands are too weak!" Ah, child abuse. So funny. Especially at Christmastime. This episode also gets bonus points for a lot of Kent Brockman – and a cameo by Jeopardy's Alex Trebek.
3. "She of Little Faith"
Season 13, Episode 6
Bart and Milhouse order a toy rocket (now with yaw control!) but end up blowing up the church's roof. To pay for repairs, Reverend Lovejoy begins selling advertising space at church – which leads to Lisa rejecting the church and seeking enlightenment at the local Buddhist temple where she meets Lenny and Carl… and Richard Gere?!?! Homer and Marge try to bring Lisa back to Christianity with all the trappings of Christmas, including the long-sought pony.
No spoilers in case you've never seen this, but the reveal of who's in the wrapping paper is even better.
And that's what ultimately makes this episode so good: layered jokes. The pony is a great example. Another holiday-themed example is when Marge bakes cookies to try to entice Lisa back to Christmas and throws them in the garbage. (Joke 1) Bart then gets excited: "Oh boy! Trash cookies!!" (Joke 2) Then he starts choking, "I think I ate a dog food can lid." (Joke 3). Christmas plays a central part in this story (as does Christianity and the essence of faith and religiosity) so it's both a great holiday episode but also a thoughtful one on the place of faith and its outward displays in our communities. Also, yaw control!
2. "Marge Be Not Proud"
Season 07, Episode 11
Bart gets banned from the Try-N-Save after getting caught doing a "four-fingered discount" on video game Bonestorm, leading to him ruining the family's Christmas photo. Why's this one one of the best? Everything with Milhouse, Bonestorm, and the cup and ball. "Mom! Bart's smoking!" Marge's attempt at reconciliation by getting Bart Lee Carvallo's Putting Challenge. We get an early and excellent appearance by Comic Book Guy. While full of classic jokes, this episode also has a lot of heart as Marge truly worries about her son being a bad kid and growing up from the little boy she loves. This is not only a great Christmas episode, it's a really great Simpsons episode overall.
1. "Grift of the Magi"
Season 11, Episode 9
I know this is heresy – how dare I?!?! Everyone knows The Simpsons was never any good after Season 8…right? So how can their best Christmas episode possibly be during their "Silver Age"? The answer is… Funzo! And also an amazing appearance by Gary Coleman! Plus, one of my favorite things about The Simpsons is how it can start off being about one thing and then the final episode plot is totally off in a different direction (also true of "She of Little Faith" – from yaw control to Richard Gere). Such as. . .
The ozone hole attacks Springfield! So Milhouse takes refuge in the Simpsons' house, and he and Bart end up dressing up in Marge's clothes bouncing on the bed singing "Sisters are doing it for themselves!". Bart falls down and breaks his coccyx, leading the school to have to install wheelchair-accessible ramps to the school. Fat Tony steps in to do the construction work, which isn't finished until Bart is all healed. Because of the considerable markup of Tony's mob construction work, they have to sell the school off to Kid First Industries, who end up using the kids as captive focus groups to design the hottest new toy.
Their toy ends up being Funzo, a dancing Furby (with firepower!!) who also destroys other toys. When the kids discover this evil plot, they break into the corporate headquarters to confront their teachers. Unable to convince them to give up their evil scheme, Bart, Lisa, and Homer take matters into their own hands. As the kids carol from house to house to distract everyone, Homer sneaks into their houses to steal their Funzos ("Now, let's see… this'll make three Christmases I saved versus eight I ruined… two were kind of a draw…"). As they destroy the Funzos in the tire fire, they are confronted by Coleman and discuss the ethics of their actions throughout the night, finally agreeing: "Let's just agree that the commercialization of Christmas is, at best, a mixed blessing." The episode ends with a voiceover explaining Mr. Burns was visited by three Christmas Ghosts, and Moe seeing what life would've been like without him, all enjoying a Christmas feast, and Coleman pronouncing, "What you talkin' about, everyone?"
Indeed, what you talkin' about…everyone.