Everybody agrees on TV’s Christmas classics, right? Uh, right?
Uh — no. Everybody debates TV’s Christmas classics. Is Charlie Brown better than the Grinch? What about “A Christmas Story” vs. “Christmas Vacation”?
Holiday viewing habits are as personal as our gift lists. There’s no definitive best-of list — only mine vs. yours, and let the debate begin. Here’s one humble ranking designed to fuel that festive Christmas fight.
▪ 1. “A Charlie Brown Christmas” (Dec. 1, 8 p.m., ABC).
What can we say about this enduring gem that hasn’t been said? Books and TV specials have detailed its 1965 animation, airing and reception. Even after 50 years, writer Charles Schulz’ purposefully plain tale of modern kids’ cultural Christmas excitement/depression remains moving. And its simple “meaning of the season” message has never been topped.
▪ 2. “It’s a Wonderful Life” (Dec. 3, 8 p.m, also on Dec. 24, NBC).
So it’s not strictly a movie about celebrating Christmas. It’s a movie celebrating a man’s life. And isn’t that what the holiday’s about? Director Frank Capra’s 1946 film follows James Stewart’s despondent small-town businessman as he discovers the depth of his personal worth during a yuletide crisis. Once run ceaselessly over the holidays, this resonant tale now gets just a few annual airings, reinforcing how truly special it is.
▪ 3. “A Christmas Carol”(1951) (Dec. 22, 11:30 p.m. on TCM).
Every yule fan has his or her own beloved filming of this classic Charles Dickens fable. First among favorites may be Alastair Sim’s black-and-white Scrooge, once aired constantly at Christmastime. But there’s a striking new take every generation — cartoon musical hour “Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol” in 1962 (seriously good!), George C. Scott in 1984, Patrick Stewart in 1999 — even female updates with Cicely Tyson, Tori Spelling and Susan Lucci. To each his (or her) own, while Sim looms large.
▪ 4. “A Christmas Story” (Dec. 24 at 8 p.m. to Dec. 25 at 8 p.m., TBS).
Peter Billingsley’s everykid covers pretty much every Christmas tradition in this 1983 movie, which only seems to grow in popularity. Based on writer Jean Shepherd’s 1940s Midwest childhood, its comic anecdotes of decorating the tree, visiting Santa Claus and awaiting turkey dinner touch today’s viewers despite their period setting. That specificity, underscored by Shepherd’s shrewd narration, makes a remake almost unthinkable.
▪ 5. “The Simpsons” (Dec. 19-25 marathon, FXX; check listings for other dates/times/channels).
A series that actually premiered with a Christmas episode (Dec. 17, 1989) should know its way around the holiday. And Fox’s durable animated familycom does, revisiting the subject frequently through its 28 seasons. The stories are silly, satirical and sentimental, offering something for every attitude. In a new holiday episode due Dec. 11, Krusty the Clown spends Christmas with the Simpsons.
▪ 6. “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” (1966) (Dec. 23, NBC; check listings for other airings).
Dr. Seuss had attitude long before “The Simpsons.” The kids’ book writer created a nefarious (yet redeemable) holiday hater, brought to robust life by Hollywood cartoon king Chuck Jones and Boris Karloff’s uncanny narration.
▪ 7. “Everybody Loves Raymond” (Dec. 4, 8-11 p.m., 1-2 a.m., TV Land).
No other sitcom so smartly captures how emotionally fraught the holiday feels when it comes to family. Regrets, resentments, the stakes of gift-giving — all the feelings that flood forth when Christmas lifts the lid. Yet Ray Romano’s cast keeps it laugh-out-loud hilarious.
▪ 8. “Seinfeld” (streaming through December on Crackle).
Then there’s flat-out anti-sentiment. This no-hugs, no-lessons sitcom may have reached its zenith in the 1997 episode “The Strike,” where Frank Costanza (Jerry Stiller) touts his own holiday of Festivus, marked by feats of strength and (pointedly) the airing of grievances.
▪ 9. “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” (Nov. 29, 8 p.m., CBS).
Generations of kids have loved this 1964 stop-motion hour of holiday mythmaking, with singalong songs from holly-jolly narrator Burl Ives. Generations of parents love sharing it with them.
▪ 10. “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” (Dec. 1 at 7:05 p.m., plus later dates/times, Freeform).
When your careful Christmas plans go down in flames, watch this 1989 holiday movie farce with Chevy Chase. See, things aren’t so bad.
▪ 11. “Twilight Zone” (Netflix/Amazon streaming).
In “Night of the Meek,” Art Carney’s bottomless bag of gifts makes him the “real” Santa.
▪ 12. “3Rd Rock from the Sun” (Netflix).
John Lithgow’s space aliens find Earth’s Christmas traditions to be — rather alien.
▪ 13. “South Park” (Hulu streaming).
Cartoon subversion, from Mr. Hankey the Christmas Poo to dinner with Charlie Manson.
▪ 14. “Frasier” (Dec. 12-16, 8-9 p.m.; Dec. 24, 6-10 p.m., Cozi TV; also Hulu).
Everything from yule loneliness to Grinch-iness to Christian/Jewish culture clash.
▪ 15. “30 Rock” (Hulu/Seeso).
Ah, the dramatic dynamics among Tina Fey’s two TV families, plus the dysfunction of Alec Baldwin and mom Elaine Stritch.
▪ 16. “The Middle” (ABC/Freeform).
Best current take on our culture’s obsession with that “perfect Christmas” pipe dream (and the suppressed sentiment behind it).
▪ 17. “The West Wing” (Netflix).
First-season holiday hour “In Excelsis Deo” is a heart-tugger dealing with a homeless man.
▪ 18. “Saturday Nigh Live” (Hulu/Seeso).
Memorable Christmas sketches lampoon “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Charlie Brown, Donald Trump and more.
▪ 19. “The Jack Benny Program.”
This 1960 nuttiness is hard to find (try archive.org), but worth it as miserly Jack drives store clerk Mel Blanc to consider holiday suicide. Truly bonkers.
▪ 20. Music family specials.
These “homey” variety hours were 1950s-1970s hits, with Kathie Lee Gifford’s ’90s specials as perhaps their last gasp. This season, over-the-air subchannel getTV celebrates these faves.