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The best Christmas TV episodes ever, from Friends and Gavin and Stacey to Schitt's Creek

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Lucy Robson
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Friends Christmas Special

This Christmas we are most likely going to be spending even more time in front of the TV than usual. So why not spend it in good company, with some of the best festive specials the silver screen has to offer – from familiar old favourites to new holiday episodes from recent years.

’Tis the season for bringing the whole family together in peace and harmony, if only in front of the TV anyway (and so long as they are in your Christmas bubble of course). 

So its a good job brand new festive entertainment is never in short supply. Every year terrestrial channels roll out Christmas TV schedules jam-packed with festive content, in the form of period dramas, family film premieres and the inevitable soap festive specials, which always seem to reserve the most grim storylines of the year for Christmas Day. (Why is that?)

Having new Christmas TV to watch is all well and good, but if we are really honest with ourselves, one of the fundamental highlights of the festive season is the annual opportunity to re-watch our favourite Christmas episodes from some of our favourite TV shows.

That’s why we’ve compiled a list of our favourite ever Christmas specials (plus where to stream them), guaranteed to give you all the festive nostalgia. There are throwbacks to crowdpleasing shows like Friends and The OC, to British comedy classics like Gavin & Stacey and The Royle Family. Perfect for watching with the family, or alone while tucking into a festive Colin the Caterpillar, washed down with a hot gin toddy.

So while you should absolutely still check out the Stylist Christmas TV Guide for 2020, when you need comfort food in the form of entertainment there really is nothing better than returning to the best Christmas episodes of yonder years on this list. It’s like mulled wine for the soul. 

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Schitt’s Creek: Holiday Special (2018)

Chosen by Lauren Geall, she said: “As is to be expected from the most wholesome TV series in the universe, the Schitt’s Creek Christmas special is one of the most heart-warming festive episodes out there.

The episode – titled Merry Christmas, Johnny Rose – follows Johnny as he tries to put together one of the luxurious Christmas Eve parties the family used to throw before they were made bankrupt. Despite his enthusiasm, however, the rest of the family are less than enthused – Moira is worried the motel party will ruin the families’ memories, Alexis wants to celebrate with her boyfriend, Ted, and David isn’t willing to bring home the decorations he sells in his store.

With seemingly no hope of throwing the party he dreamed of, Johnny heads to the diner to eat alone. While there, however, he thinks back to the luxurious parties the family were used to, and realises they weren’t all they were cracked up to be – despite all the glitz and glamour, the family never spent much time together.

Just when it seems like all hope is lost, however, Moira arrives at the diner and takes Johnny by the hand, leading him home to the motel where Alexis, David and their friends are gathered to celebrate Christmas. It’s not the luxurious setting the family are used to, but it’s a touching reminder of the importance of family at Christmas.

Schitt’s Creek: Holiday Special (Merry Christmas, Johnny Rose) is available to watch now on Netflix

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Black Mirror: White Christmas (2014)

Chosen by Moya Lothian Mclean, she says “the true meaning of Christmas is watching a 74-minute special on the horror humans can wreak when let loose with technology. Soundtracked by Wizzard. I’ve never had a festive tradition before but since 2014, when it first aired, I’ve made time in the days before the 25 December to curl up in front of the TV and watch this Black Mirror Christmas special.

It’s three tales for the price of one as confused Joe Potter (Rafe Spall) wakes in an idyllic countryside cottage, complete with duvet of snow. Joe has no idea how he got there and mysterious bunkmate Matt (John Hamm) is his only chance at solving the puzzle. To pass the time, Matt begins to tell stories – and they’re not the ordinary feel-good Christmas fare…

The perils of tech, a murder or two and a big old twist; the Black Mirror Christmas special encompasses everything all my favourite themes. Besides, horror stories at Christmas were a treasured Victorian custom – and who am I to argue with history?”

Black Mirror: White Christmas (season two, episode four) is available to watch now on Netflix

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Gavin and Stacey: Christmas special (2008)

Gavin and Stacey Christmas Special
Christmas TV specials: Gavin and Stacey

Chosen by Tom Gormer, he says: “the joy of Gavin and Stacey all come from the observations of the minutiae of everyday life. James Corden and Ruth Jones who write the show nail what is going on in every family household at Christmas and turn it into a brilliant moment.

The Christmas episode of Gavin and Stacey, first broadcast on Christmas Eve 2008 (ELEVEN YEARS AGO!) is brilliant for many many reasons. but the biggest most singular reason it is the best Christmas episode of any telly EVER is all down to ‘vegetarian’ Pamela Shipman, played brilliantly by Alison Steadman.

From doing turkey impressions with Pete and Dawn the next-door neighbours, wondering which John sent the Christmas card (“Oh THAT John”), starting a row with, well, everyone and roleplaying as Camilla and Charles with husband Mick (Michael, Mick) she is a triumph who steals every single scene she is in.

Pamela also has some extremely wise words of festive wisdom:

“What’s the point of sending cards on Christmas Eve? They get taken down in a few days. That is why I send my cards on November 1st, that way it gives people seven weeks to enjoy them!’

Gavin and Stacey: Christmas special is available to watch now on BBC iPlayer

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The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air: Deck The Halls (1990)

Will Smith & Alfonso Ribeiro
Christmas TV specials: The Fresh Prince of Bel Air

Chosen by Meena Alexander, she said: “The moment I hear, “Now this is a story all about how…” I feel all warm and fuzzy inside. It’s the emotional equivalent of that first sip of tea – comforting and predictable in the best sort of way. Times that feeling by 12 and you’ve got The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’s first Christmas episode. 

The original (and best) Aunt Viv is still around, with her shady putdowns and perfectly coiffed hair. It’s got the mandatory heart-warming storyline about the true meaning of Christmas – which, unsurprisingly, is nothing to do with who has the most expensively decorated Bel-Air mansion. 

But the main reason I watch it again and again is the outfits. The show couldn’t be more Nineties if it tried, and in this episode, peppered with party outfits and outrageous festive jumpers, the looks are at their very best. One look at my teenage bedroom and you’d think you’d walked into the dressing room of a Will Smith and DJ Jazzy Jeff tribute act (unlikely style icons for a 15-year-old girl, I know, but how else was I to stand out in a sleepy suburb of Bristol?) The silk shirts, the high-waisted jeans and the bright prints, the backwards baseball caps and the Air Jordan’s with the laces pulled out; I loved it all. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air achieved what few sitcoms have managed since: feel-good comedy, the odd meaningful moral and SO. MANY. LOOKS.

The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air: Deck the Halls (season 1, episode 15) is available to watch on Netflix.

Doctor Who: Voyage of the Damned (2007)

David Tennant Doctor Who Christmas Special
Christmas TV specials: Doctor Who

Chosen by Kayleigh Dray, she said: “Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without Doctor Who.

Of all the Christmassy Doctor Who episodes, though, my favourite - somewhat controversially - has to be The Voyage of the Damned. Hitting our screens in 2007, this Russell T Davies-penned adventure sees David Tennant’s Doctor board the Titanic as it sails through… outer space? Yup. As if that weren’t weird enough as a setup, Kylie Minogue guest-stars as Astrid, a waitress from a small planet with big dreams of seeing the stars. She quickly befriends our titular hero, taking on the role of his companion, and grows increasingly fond of him during their time together. (That kiss? Oh, that’s just an “old tradition” on Sto, don’t worry about it.) 

Of course, this being Doctor Who - and the goddamned Titanic - this voyage doesn’t run smoothly. At all. Think dastardly villains, mortal peril, robotic angels (of course), and the kind of ending that makes you sniffle into your mince pies. Throw in the fact that Kylie acts her supernova socks off, and you have a recipe for a very good Christmas indeed.

Doctor Who: Voyage of the Damned (story 188) is available to watch now on BBC iPlayer.

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Friends: The One With the Holiday Armadillo (2000)

Chosen by Hanna Ibraheem, she said “what do you mean you haven’t heard of the Holiday Armadillo? While trying to teach his son Ben about the magic of Hanukkah (and after the costume shop runs out of Santa suits), Ross Gellar dresses up as the Holiday Armadillo, Santa’s part-Jewish pal from Texas. 

It shouldn’t work, but it does. And just as the armadillo is getting into the story of Hanukkah - a phrase I never thought I’d write - Chandler walks through the door dressed up as Santa. Albeit, a Santa that tries to slip Ben a few dollar notes and fails. The back and forth between the unlikely holiday duo makes for one of the best comedy scenes of the series but it also touches on how magical it is for a kid to believe in Santa (and the Holiday Armadillo).

Friends: The One With the Holiday Armadillo (season 7, episode 10) is available to watch now on Netflix.

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Call the Midwife (2015)

Chosen by Anna Fielding, she said: “At first glance Call the Midwife can appear almost too cosy, with nuns and nurses on bikes and troops of Cockney Scouts kicking about. But it’s got a serious side too. There’s the bleakness of the poverty in the mid 20th Century East End, prejudices to overcome and a constant reminder that many people respond to society’s most vulnerable by looking the other way.

This makes it perfect for Christmas specials. British TV loves a bit of bleak at Christmas time (EastEnders has been bravely upholding the tradition of festive misery since Den handed Angie the divorce papers in 1986). Call The Midwife manages to pull off dark and dramatic moments, combined with proper heartwarming Christmas schlock.

Their best Christmas episode is from 2015, which combines these two strands perfectly. The BBC are planning to televise a carol service, full of Poplar’s cutest urchins, but it’s thrown into chaos by a measles outbreak. Then beloved and eccentric Sister Monica Joan goes missing. They wouldn’t kill off Sister Monica Joan for a moment of shocking Christmas drama, would they? Happily not. Sister MJ is traced back to her childhood home. Then, if one heart wrenching moment wasn’t enough, Delia reappears. The Welsh nurse who had been having a necessarily clandestine relationship with midwife Patsy and her return, and the look on Patsy’s face, promise big things for the coming series.

Social progress, a rosy portrait of a community, practical people getting things done efficiently and two good tear-jerking moments. It’s so satisfying as a Christmas special. Bring on the snow machine and the choir of urchins.

Call the Midwife (Christmas special, series five) is available to watch now on Netflix.

Knowing Me Knowing Yule with Alan Partridge (1995)

Chosen by Gareth Watkins, he said: “The biggest Christmas cracker in the world, a potty-mouthed TV chef, a genuine virgin Mary, (Alan) Partridge in a pear tree and Mick Hucknall singing Ding Dong Merrily On High, Knowing Me Knowing Yule has everything you/I could possibly want from a Christmas special.

Harking back to a more innocent era of TV when Saturday nights were spent in the company of Mr Blobby rather than endless reality competitions, the 1995 show did such a good job of satirising the traditional ‘special’ – a Star Wars-bar selection of B-list celebs, overenthusiastic members of the public, cute kids in costume, a bemused pop star – that watching it is as nostalgic as it is funny. It’s become an annual tradition for me, my Christmas comfort blanket.

Incredible as it seems, this one was a low point in Alan’s career, the show closes with him being told he’ll never work on TV again and KO-ing his boss with a fist stuffed in a partridge. But it wasn’t the end. In a life-imitating-art-imitating-life kind of way, which I’m calling ‘The Partridge Paradox’, Alan has now become part of the very fabric of British broadcasting. You could happily do a like-for-like swap with him and Noel Edmonds in the I’m A Celeb jungle. And just as Edmonds clawed his way back from the TV wilderness, so Alan will make a triumphant return to the BBC next year. One can only hope a new festive special will head our way. Christmas memories are made of this.

Knowing Me Knowing Yule with Alan Partridge (season one, episode seven) is available to watch now on iTunes.     

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The Royle Family: The New Sofa (2008)

Christmas TV specials: The Royle Family

Chosen by Lucy Partington, she said: “True festive spirit will forever be summed up by 2008’s genius episode of The Royle Family. Because if Cup-a-Soup with a twist (“What’s the twist? It’s in a bowl”), Jim being less than excited by a reclining sofa (“It reminds me of lying down”), Denise’s attempt at tropical punch (blue WKD with a whole banana plonked in it, naturally), and a mention of Wall’s Vienetta doesn’t scream ‘IT’S CHRISTMAS’ then to be honest, I don’t know what does. 

There’s also the bloody brilliant (and probably obligatory) frozen turkey scenario that deserves to be acknowledged, too, because Dave and Denise trying to defrost it in a bubble bath is TV gold. I just wish the BBC played it more regularly so I don’t always have to turn to Netflix for my fix.

The Royle Family: The New Sofa (2008) is available to watch now on Netflix.

Father Ted: A Christmassy Ted (1996)

Chosen by Jenny Tregoning, she said: “It’s probably the least Christmassy of Christmas specials, but Father Ted’s festive episode from 1996 is my all-time favourite for making me crease up year after year without fail. Generally scheduled in a post-midnight slot on Channel 4, when everyone else has gone to bed and I can help myself to that final glass of sloe gin I definitely don’t need, A Christmassy Ted is 55 minutes of pure, quotable silliness. 

From the priests getting lost in Ireland’s biggest lingerie department and Ted having to enact a military-style escape to avoid a national scandal, to Father Jack in the crèche spelling out “feck, arse, drink” with the alphabet blocks, and Father Dougal officiating at the world’s most disastrous funeral (“You let Dougal do a funeral?!”), it’s a masterclass in situation comedy. This year I’ll be on the other side of the world for Christmas, but you can rest assured Ted, Dougal and co will be making their annual appearance regardless; it wouldn’t be the same without them. In the words of Mrs Doyle, “Ah, go on.”

Father Ted: A Christmassy Ted (season two, episode 11) is available to watch now on All4.

The OC: The best Chrismukkah Ever (2003)

The OC Chrismukkah Season 2
Christmas TV specials: The OC

Chosen by Lucy Robson, she said: “Two of The OC’s main festive legacies have to be the (more stylish than your average) Christmas Jumper and ‘Chrismukkah’ Seth Cohen’s self-titled Christmas and Hanukkah hybrid. His love of this special day means that despite some very bad behaviour from Seth towards Anna and Summer, we can (almost) forgive him for it, thanks to his tireless campaign to bring his family and friends, who are constantly embroiled in drama, together in harmony and acceptance.

One of the most charming moments of the episode is when Seth explains to Ryan, who has only ever experienced miserable Christmases with his troubled family, that the worst thing he will have to deal with is using Seth’s silly word for this invented holiday, as well as maybe don a festive jumper (very off brand for white vest advocate Ryan).

In a wider sense, Seth’s message is one of acceptance and the embracing of diversity in infusing the two holidays – the idea that you don’t have to choose. This runs in ironic parallel to Seth’s unfurling relationship drama, in which he absolutely does have to choose - between Anna and Summer. Just for this episode he revels in the not choosing which makes for an incredibly cheesy but also amusing climax, in which both girls reject Seth (but not for long).

The OC: The best Chrismukkah Ever (season 1, episode 13) is available to rent on Amazon Prime.

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Lucy Robson

Lucy Robson is an digital writer for Stylist.co.uk, who enjoys chasing trends and writing about books, film, TV and other lifestyle and feminist news.

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