Britain Declares War on Germany

UK National Archives

The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that shaped our modern world. Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 137th installment in the series.

August 4, 1914: Britain Declares War on Germany

After the fateful decision by Russia’s Tsar Nicholas II to order general mobilization on July 30, the peace of Europe unraveled with stunning speed. On the afternoon of July 31, Germany declared “imminent danger of war” and delivered an ultimatum to Russia to halt mobilization within twelve hours. When no response was received by the afternoon of August 1, Germany and France both mobilized within minutes of each other, and Germany declared war on Russia at 7pm. That night German troops began occupying tiny, neutral Luxembourg as a preamble to the invasion on Belgium and northern France.

Now the focus of the drama shifted to London, where the French implored their reluctant British allies to fulfill their informal commitment to help defend France, and the Germans frantically tried to persuade them not to by every means at their disposal—including outright lies.

Crowds Cheer War

To this day, one of the defining motifs of World War I is the huge crowds that gathered to cheer the outbreak of the war. These (supposedly) spontaneous patriotic demonstrations were cited as proof that ordinary Europeans were eager for war, and while government propagandists may have later exaggerated the size and enthusiasm of these crowds, there’s no question that many people seemed to welcome the war as a long-awaited release after years of gradually mounting tension.

During the first week of August, hundreds of thousands of Germans—perhaps millions—filled public squares in cities and towns to hear officials read the proclamation of war. On August 1, 50,000 gathered in front of the Imperial Palace to hear Kaiser Wilhelm II’s speech:

This is a dark day and a sombre hour for Germany. Envious people on every side have forced us to a just defense. The sword is placed in our hands by force. I hope that, if at the last moment my efforts to bring about an understanding between ourselves and our adversaries and to maintain the peace do not succeed, we may, by the help of God, so use our swords that when all is ended we can replace them in their scabbards with honor. A war will ask from us enormous sacrifices of men and of money, but we shall show our enemies what it means to provoke Germany. And now I recommend you all to God. Go to church, kneel before Him and pray that He may sustain our brave army.

Historyplace.com

The following day in Munich, a young Adolf Hitler joined thousands of other people in the Bavarian capital’s Odeonsplatz to hear war proclaimed from the balcony of the Feldherrnhalle, a memorial to war dead; the moment was captured by a photographer, Heinrich Hoffman, who later located Hitler in the photo (below; some historians allege Hitler’s appearance in the photo was faked). Hitler recalled his reaction to the news of war: “Even today I am not ashamed to say that, overpowered by stormy enthusiasm, I fell down on my knees and thanked Heaven from an overflowing heart for granting me the good fortune of being permitted to live at this time.” According to his own account, he volunteered for the Bavarian Army the next day.

U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum

That same afternoon of August 2, a quarter of a million Russians filled Palace Square in St. Petersburg (below) to hear the Tsar’s official proclamation of war against Germany and solemn vow that he would “never make peace so long as one of the enemy is on the soil of the fatherland,” repeating a phrase first used by Tsar Alexander I during the war against Napoleon. Russian scouting expeditions were already skirmishing with German patrols in East Prussia.

Englishrussia.com

The flip side of patriotic fervor was nationalist hatred, as angry mobs attacked “foreigners” (not always from an enemy nation), vandalizing, looting and burning their homes and businesses. Charles Inman Barnard, the Paris correspondent of The New York Tribune, described anti-German riots on the evening of August 2: “A German shoemaker who attempted to charge exaggerated prices for boots had his windows smashed and his stock looted by an infuriated crowd. The news that the German shops were being attacked soon spread, and youths gathered in bands, going from one shop to the other and wrecking them in the course of a few moments.” The following day Barnard witnessed the looting of the Maggi milk shops, which were in fact Swiss-owned, and Neil Hopkins, another American living in Paris, recalled: “The news of the wrecking of German and Austrian shops spread like wild-fire over Paris and it was amusing to see the following day, scores of shops closed which did not bear very pure French names, labeled ‘Maison Francais’ to protect them from mob violence.”

The war also gave rise to a mania for linguistic “purity,” which meant purging enemy words from everyday language. Piete Kuhr, a 12-year-old German girl living in East Prussia, recorded in her diary entry for August 3, 1914: “At school the teachers say it is our patriotic duty to stop using foreign words. I didn’t know what that meant at first, but now I see it – you must no longer say ‘Adieu’ because that is French. I must now call Mama ‘Mutter.’”

But the “spirit of August 1914” was hardly universal, whatever some post-war memoirists might claim. Working class Europeans, surmising that they would bear the brunt of the fighting, were much less enthusiastic about the war than their middle class counterparts. In fact around 750,000 Germans had participated in anti-war demonstrations across the country in the week before war was declared. On the other side, on August 2 the British Labour Party organized anti-war protests in London’s Trafalgar Square, and the French socialist leader Jean Jaurès was assassinated on July 31 for giving voice to anti-war views shared by many of his constituents.

However pacifist sentiments were soon pushed aside by the irresistible march of events, and in every belligerent nation the socialists voted to support the war (usually to their lasting regret).

French Press British to Act

Following their refusal to remain neutral in a war between Germany and Russia, French leaders knew it was only a matter of time before Germany declared war on France too. Now it was all-important to get Britain to take their side, as promised (informally) in military staff talks and slightly less ambiguous Anglo-French Naval Convention. But many members of the British cabinet were unaware of these secret agreements and understandably reluctant to embroil Britain in a cataclysmic continental war.

On hearing word of the German invasion of neutral Luxembourg, whose neutrality was agreed in the Treaty of London of 1867, the French ambassador to London, Paul Cambon, asked Foreign Secretary Edward Grey whether Britain would fight. However Grey pointed out that, unlike the 1838 treaty guaranteeing Belgian neutrality, the 1867 treaty didn’t technically oblige Britain to take military action to protect to Luxembourg’s neutrality, if the other Great Powers weren’t also intervening. Cambon could barely contain his anger at this slippery reasoning, according to H. Wickham Steed, the foreign editor of The Times, who recalled, “he pointed to a copy of the Luxemburg Treaty… and exclaimed bitterly: ‘There is the signature of England… I do not know whether this evening the word “honor” will not have to be struck out of the British vocabulary.’”

But Grey was merely representing the views of the British cabinet; personally, he had staked everything on British intervention, threatening to resign if the cabinet insisted on neutrality and working with First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill to drum up support from the opposition Unionists. Unionist support gave Grey and Prime Minister Asquith crucial political leverage, as they might be able to form a new coalition government without the anti-interventionists.

On August 2, Asquith went into the 11am cabinet meeting with a letter pledging Unionist support, and now the tide began to turn: although a handful of ministers resigned in protest, the rest of the cabinet agreed to at least protect the French coastline from German naval attacks, as promised in the naval convention of 1912. However, the deciding factor would be Germany’s violation of Belgian neutrality.

Germany’s Ultimatum to Belgium

On August 2, as German troops occupied Luxembourg, the German ambassador to Belgium, Below-Saleske, presented a note to the Belgian Foreign Minister, Davignon, containing a flagrant, hypocritical lie followed by an insulting, dishonorable request:            

Reliable information has been received by the German Government… [which]… leaves no doubt as to the intention of France to march through Belgian territory against Germany. It is essential for the self-defense of Germany that she should anticipate any such hostile attack.  The German Government would, however, feel the deepest regret if Belgium regarded as an act of hostility against herself the fact that the measures of Germany’s opponents force Germany, for her own protection, to enter Belgian territory… Germany has in view no act of hostility against Belgium. In the event of Belgium being prepared in the coming war to maintain an attitude of friendly neutrality towards Germany, the German Government bind themselves, at the conclusion of peace, to guarantee the possessions and independence of the Belgian Kingdom in full.

In other words, the Germans fabricated a fictitious French invasion (which they also peddled to the British, without success) in order to justify their own breach of Belgian neutrality—then asked the Belgians to break their longstanding promise to the other Great Powers and forfeit their neutrality by giving German forces free passage to attack France. If Belgium didn’t knuckle under, they warned of dire consequences, including a not-so-veiled threat against Belgian independence (echoing chief of the general staff Moltke’s menacing warning to King Albert in November 1913):

Should Belgium oppose the German troops, and in particular should she throw difficulties in the way of their march by a resistance of the fortresses on the Meuse, or by destroying railways, roads, tunnels, or other similar works, Germany will, to her regret, be compelled to consider Belgium as an enemy. In this event, Germany can undertake no obligations towards Belgium, but the eventual adjustment of the relations between the two States must be left to the decision of arms.

At first glance Belgium had every reason to submit to the German demand. Given the size of the Belgian Army—which mustered 117,000 field troops in 1914, versus a German invasion force of 750,000 – there was no hope of mounting a successful long-term resistance. Early capitulation would also have spared the lives and property of thousands of civilians, not to mention the country’s cultural heritage. But King Albert felt honor-bound to fulfill Belgium’s historical promise of neutrality—and, as a realist, was not just a little skeptical about German promises to restore Belgian independence.

In any event there was no debate in the Belgian cabinet about how to respond, according to the King’s military adjutant, Lieutenant-General Émile Galet, who recounted: “Opinion was unanimous. The answer must be no.” Working late into the night, the Belgian ministers drew up the official reply to the German ultimatum:

This note has made a deep and painful impression upon the Belgian Government… Belgium has always been faithful to her international obligations, she has carried out her duties in a spirit of loyal impartiality, and she has left nothing undone to maintain and enforce respect for her neutrality. The attack upon her independence with which the German Government threaten her constitutes a flagrant violation of international law. No strategic interest justifies such a violation of law. The Belgian Government, if they were to accept the proposals submitted to them, would sacrifice the honor of the nation and betray their duty towards Europe.

Putting his hopes in a speedy rescue by French and British forces, Albert gave the order to prepare the defenses at Liège, the fortress complex guarding Belgium’s border with Germany, and left to assume personal command of the Belgian Army – the only head of state to do so during the war—in the face of overwhelming odds.

Britain’s Ultimatum to Germany

The German ultimatum to Belgium galvanized British public opinion and swung the cabinet decisively towards the war party; needless to say, no one was convinced by German claims that France had violated Belgian neutrality first. On the morning of August 3, Prime Minister Herbert Asquith met with two leaders of the opposition Unionists, Bonar Law and Lord Lansdowne, who agreed that the violation of Belgian neutrality would force Britain to go to war. At the cabinet meeting that followed, several ministers withdrew their resignations of the previous day, indicating a decisive shift in the political landscape.

At 3pm in the afternoon the House of Commons assembled to hear a dramatic speech by Grey, who appeared pale and exhausted after several days of frantic meetings and negotiations. Grey told the members of Parliament:

It now appears from the news I have received to-day—which has come quite recently, and I am not yet quite sure how far it has reached me in an accurate form – that an ultimatum has been given to Belgium by Germany, the object of which was to offer Belgium friendly relations with Germany on condition that she would facilitate the passage of German troops through Belgium… If Belgium is compelled to submit to allow her neutrality to be violated, of course the situation is clear… The smaller States in that region of Europe ask but one thing. Their one desire is that they should be left alone and independent… if we were to say that all those things matter nothing, were as nothing, and to say we would stand aside, we should, I believe, sacrifice our respect and good name and reputation before the world, and should not escape the most serious and grave economic consequences.

Another chorus of cheers signaled broad agreement across party lines, with most Liberals, Conservatives, and Labour members now supporting British intervention (a pacifist wing of the Labour Party, led by Ramsay MacDonald, still objected). Although there was no formal vote on war, this voice poll cleared the way for Grey’s next step: an ultimatum to Germany, demanding that she stop the invasion of Belgium immediately. That night, as crowds filled the streets around Buckingham Palace and the foreign office at Whitehall, Grey gazed out his window at a worker lighting the street lamps and famously said: “The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.” 

At 8am on the morning of August 4, 1914, German troops crossed the Belgian frontier at Gemmenich, and that evening the British ambassador to Berlin, Goschen, delivered the ultimatum to Foreign Secretary Gottlieb von Jagow, informing him that the German government had until midnight to make a satisfactory response. Goschen next asked to meet with Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg, who was about to utter one of the most famous (and infamous) phrases associated with the Great War:

I found the Chancellor very agitated. His Excellency at once began a harangue that lasted about twenty minutes. He said that the step taken by His Majesty’s Government was terrible to a degree, just for the word “neutrality,” a word which in war-time has so often been disregarded – just for a scrap of paper, Great Britain was going to make war on a kindred nation which desired nothing better to be friends with her.

This disdain for a “scrap of paper” would be cited as proof of the German government’s disregard for all international norms, making it in modern terms a “rogue state,” beyond the pale of civilization. Bethmann-Hollweg didn’t help the German cause with his own frank admission in a speech to the Reichstag on August 4 that the invasion of Belgium was “a breach of international law,” which was however unavoidable: “The wrong—I speak openly—the wrong we thereby commit we will try to make good as soon as our military aims have been attained.”

At midnight on August 4, no German response had been received in London, and Britain was at war with Germany (top, crowds gather outside Buckingham Palace to cheer the king and queen). The British declaration of war surprised and infuriated the Germans, who expected conflict with France and Russia, their historic enemies, but not their “racial cousins” across the North Sea. In what was becoming a common scene across Europe, on August 4 an angry mob attacked the British embassy in Berlin, witnessed by Frederic William Wile, an American newspaper correspondent:

The Embassy was besieged by a shouting throng… I saw things hurtling towards the windows. From the crash of glass that ensued, I knew they were hitting their mark. The fusillade increased in violence. When there would be a particularly loud crash, it would be followed by a fiendish roar of glee. Many women were among the demonstrators. A mounted policeman or two could be seen making no very vigorous effort to interfere with the riot.

Later that night, Wile was mistaken for a British “spy” and roughed up by a mob before the police arrested him – for his own safety, they explained, although they also strip-searched him. Americans in Europe were often mistaken for British citizens during these days, which could be dangerous in more ways than one: an elated French crowd carried Nevil Monroe Hopkins around on their shoulders “with a free carelessness, that nearly frightened me to death…”

A World Turned Upside Down

Across Europe, and indeed the world, massive changes were already sweeping government and society. In belligerent and neutral countries alike, emergency decrees or legislation suspended or limited bank withdrawals and conversion of paper currency to  gold in order to avert financial panic, including Denmark on August 2, the Netherlands on August 3, Germany and Austria-Hungary on August 4, and Britain on August 6. Across the Atlantic the U.S. Congress voted to increase the emergency funds available to banks to $1.1 billion—a mind-boggling sum—while the New York Stock Exchange remained closed.

Elsewhere in the New World, Canada, a loyal Dominion of the British Empire, prepared to contribute to the British war effort. The Canadian Royal Naval Reserve and militia were called up, military authorities took control of Montreal and Quebec, both key transportation hubs for troops embarking for Britain, and young men flocked to recruiting offices. One volunteer, Reginald Grant, described the scene: “It was as if a baseball championship series were on; the crowd good-naturedly swayed and jammed as each man struggled to get to the door and signed up before the quota was full… In two hours I was in khaki and in another hour I had bade the folks farewell…”

In Asia, Japan prepared to join the war in support of her British ally—but the real reason was closer to home, as the Japanese eyed German possessions in the Far East including Jiazhou Bay (called Kiaochow Bay by the Germans) in China and island possessions scattered across the Pacific. Meanwhile the German Far East Fleet under Admiral von Spee sailed to raid Allied shipping in the Pacific, while in the western Mediterranean Admiral Souchon, commanding the German battleships Goeben and Breslau, prepared to make a daring dash past British and French fleets for Constantinople. In Africa, the cruiser Konigsberg left Dar es Salaam, the capital of the German colony of Tanganyika (today Tanzania) to raid Allied shipping in the Indian Ocean.

ITV.com

Back in Europe, on August 4, German forces crossed the French border at Mars-La-Tour, and the following day laid siege to Liege, Belgium. One of the bloodiest phases of the Great War, the Battle of the Frontiers, was about to begin.

See the previous installment or all entries.

Friday’s Best Amazon Deals Include Digital Projectors, Ugly Christmas Sweaters, and Speakers

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As a recurring feature, our team combs the web and shares some amazing Amazon deals we’ve turned up. Here’s what caught our eye today, December 4. Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers, including Amazon, and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Good luck deal hunting!

The 40 Best Christmas Television Episodes

Dan Stevens and Michelle Dockery in Downton Abbey.
Dan Stevens and Michelle Dockery in Downton Abbey.
Masterpiece on PBS

If the gifts, cookies, PTO, full-fledged trees indoors, license to wear ugly sweaters, and general sense of cheerfulness aren't enough to make you look forward to Christmastime more than any other time of year, there's one last selling point that just might make you change your tune to "Jingle Bells": the possibility of your favorite TV show airing a Christmas episode.

Watching characters you've come to know so well in other contexts navigate an emotionally-charged holiday atmosphere is not only extremely entertaining, it can also deepen your understanding of what the holiday is about—or at least give you a break from your own eccentric extended family to laugh at someone else's.

Settle in with a gallon of eggnog and gear up for this year's yuletide festivities by revisiting our top 40 Christmas television episodes of all time (listed in alphabetical order by series titles).

1. 30 Rock // "Ludachristmas"

With Christmas in New York City, family dysfunction, and unabashed partying, "Ludachristmas" is a 30-minute encapsulation of what the holidays are all about—the only thing missing from this 30 Rock episode is Ludacris himself. From Jack’s hilariously malevolent mother to Kenneth's painfully boring (but essential and meaningful) portrayal of Christmas to Liz's not-so-happy-after-all family, just about every audience member can relate to this. Christmas is the best time of the year! Just ask Tracy, who couldn't help but wildly celebrate and disobey his 30-day alcohol probation mandated by a judge. —Thomas Carannante

2. Alfred Hitchcock Presents // "Back for Christmas"

Alfred Hitchcock might not be known for holiday cheer, but the Master of Suspense did put his distinctively dour stamp on this yuletide installment of his long-running anthology series, and it's one of the few episodes he directed himself. In “Back for Christmas,” John Williams (not the composer) portrays Herbert Carpenter, a man who offs his wife Hermione (Isobel Elsom) in England and believes he can conceal her body in the foundation of their home. While relaxing in America during a holiday break, he receives distressing news from across the pond. His late wife’s Christmas gift to him was a wine cellar—one that will require excavating his basement floor. And now you understand why Hitchcock, despite his Santa-esque proportions, was considered less than jolly. —Jake Rossen

3. Arrested Development // "Afternoon Delight"

Don't disrespect President Gob in his $5000 suit or else you'll face the consequences, which the entire Bluth Company does at the annual holiday party when Gob mistakes some forced compliments from an employee as a roast. The only thing worse (and more hilarious) than that is Michael singing "Afternoon Delight" with his niece, Maeby, before realizing the lyrics are inappropriate for such a duet. Lucille is even more neurotic during the holidays; Buster enjoys his Christmas detour from Army at the arcade; Tobias's ruptured eardrum (thanks to Lucille's poking and blowing) forces him to miss a life-changing call from the Blue Man Group; and the locals continue their Christmas tradition of destroying the famed banana stand—COME ON! —TC

4. Black Mirror // "White Christmas"

No amount of seasonal cheer can alter the bleak outlook of Black Mirror, and its holiday special is no exception. Trapped together in a cabin with snow piling up outside, Matt (Jon Hamm) and Joe (Rafe Spall) discuss the circumstances that have brought them together. Matt was an expert in artificial intelligence and ruthlessly captured the consciousness of people to become part of a sentient personal assistant device; Joe admits he killed his fiancée’s father with a snow globe after an argument. The cabin seems like a prison, and both of their fates are intertwined. By the time Matt is wandering the streets, rendered unseen and essentially invisible to the outside world, and Joe is trapped in a purgatory of his own making, you’ll be wishing for the Grinch to help cheer you up. —JR

5. Cheers // "Christmas Cheers"

As is par for the course with Cheers, nothing about season 6's Christmas episode is remotely subtle—which, of course, is why we love it. From It’s a Wonderful Life playing on the bar’s television to Norm’s Santa suit (and Santa-suited friends), the whole episode makes you wonder if maybe you’d rather skip the big family shebang this year and spend the holidays in a cozy bar with a frothy pint instead. —Ellen Gutoskey

6. Community // "Comparative Religion"

“Comparative Religion” is hardly a canonical episode of Community. This is, after all, the show best known for its high-concept, over-budget homages. “Comparative Religion” has none of that, though it does feature an exceptional guest spot from Anthony Michael Hall. Instead, the episode focuses on building the characters of the study group, dealing out simple but hilarious jokes (“We're trying to get Jeff ready for the fiiiiiiiiiiiiiight,”), and giving the world the gift of Christmas Troy. —Noam Radcliffe

7. Community // "Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas"

Born of a vague, technical approval from an executive and a “screw-it” attitude, "Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas" is peak Community. With its striking stop-motion aesthetic, it earned the show its sole Emmy—for Individual Achievement in Animation—and sent director Duke Johnson on the path to 2015’s Anomalisa, but its real legacy lives in the simple fact of its existence. “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” does what only Community could, balancing studied homage, formal wanderlust, and unbelievable heart in an all-too-brief 23-minute package. —NR

8. Curb Your Enthusiasm // "Mary, Joseph and Larry"

Larry David’s holiday spirit is on full and awkward display in this seasonal episode that sees the comedian ruining Christmas for his wife Cheryl (Cheryl Hines) by accidentally eating cookies intended for a family nativity scene. Finding that the true meaning of Christmas involves not upsetting his in-laws, Larry goes in search of a solution and finds a live nativity that might be able to save the day. On Curb Your Enthusiasm, you can expect he’s likely to just make everything delightfully worse. —JR

9. Doctor Who // "A Christmas Carol"

Christmas specials are just as much a part of Doctor Who canon as regeneration or Daleks, which means there are several holiday-themed episodes from which to choose. But the 2010 edition, featuring Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor, was a clever retelling of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol—which, when you think about it, is sort of about time travel anyway. Which fits perfectly into the series’ legendary sci-fi pedigree. —Jennifer M. Wood

10. Downton Abbey // "Christmas at Downton Abbey"

After two dramatic seasons of will-they-or-won’t-they-get-together storylines—plus one scandalous post-coital death, a miraculous recovery from paralysis, and a convenient case of Spanish flu that killed off a romantic rival—(distant) cousins Matthew and Mary Crawley finally seal the deal. Which, in this case means: Matthew proposes, Mary tells him he better do it properly (she likes things done properly), she says yes, the ASMR-inducing music swells, and they spin around in the snow to celebrate their newly betrothed bliss. Don’t knock it ‘til you watch it. —JMW

11. Friends // "The One With the Holiday Armadillo"

Whatever your feelings may be about Ross Geller’s questionable behavior as a parent, boyfriend, professor, doctor (of paleontology), or person in general, you must admit his histrionics as the holiday armadillo have earned him a place in the Christmas television hall of fame. In the absence of any available Santa Claus costumes, Ross dons a terrifying armadillo suit to teach his half-Jewish son about Hanukkah—but when Chandler appears dressed as Santa Claus, and Joey bursts in dressed as Superman, it turns into the weirdest Christmas pageant of all time. —EG

12. Futurama // "Xmas Story"

Futurama’s ability to be heartfelt and charming seconds after a sophomoric gag is a great strength, and this first Xmas episode strikes that strange balance. John Goodman as murderous Robot Santa is a treat, but Fry and Leela’s bond growing deeper over their shared loneliness—he as an unfrozen future man, she as an alien of unknown parentage—is a building block for what’s to come. Oh, and Zoidberg saves the day! Now, let us all sing "Santa Claus is Gunning You Down.” —Sam Dunn

13. Gilmore Girls // "Forgiveness and Stuff"

Gilmore Girls is rife with enchanting snowfalls, steaming mugs of coffee, and a general sense of coziness throughout, so a solid series binge come December is totally justified. If you only have about 45 minutes of free time, however, this episode from season 1 is worth a rewatch. Familial tensions run high when Richard suffers a heart attack, and we get to see all the characters (Lorelai and Emily in particular) at their worst, then best, then worst again, then best again, and so on. It’s not only classic Gilmore Girls, it’s classic “any family during the holidays.” Messy, relatable, and ultimately impossible not to love. —EG

14. Hey Arnold // "Arnold’s Christmas"

One of the first iconic tear-jerkers in this young adult series, Arnold gets lonely Vietnamese boarder Mr. Hyunh (long before he became a country star) in their household's Secret Santa drawing. His grandiose Christmas plan is to reunite the recent immigrant with his daughter Mai, whom he had allowed to escape on a helicopter 20 years prior. After many fruitless attempts, Arnold surrenders hope, only to watch Mai arrive on his doorstep anyway, thanks to his guardian angel, the head-over-heels Helga. We're not sure why one cartoon was legally allowed to make us cry so deeply and for so long. —Adam Weinrib

15. The Honeymooners // "'Twas the Night Before Christmas"

First aired on actual Christmas Eve 1955 (television used to be a smidge more magical back then), Ralph Kramden learns a lesson in generosity, courtesy of the Ghost of O. Henry (figuratively, not literally). After blowing his Christmas money on a bowling ball for himself, he then regrets it and sells the ball to buy his wife a real present. She then gifts him … a now-unusable bowling ball bag, leading to a tender moment and oft-remembered Kramden monologue about the real joy of the holiday. —AW

16. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia // "A Very Sunny Christmas"

What does the Gang want for Christmas? For Dennis (Glenn Howerton) and Dee (Kaitlin Olson), it’s the respect of their father Frank (Danny DeVito), a selfish ogre who buys their most desired gifts then keeps them for himself. They attempt to course-correct by stuffing him into a couch so he can hear his old co-workers discuss what a terrible person he is. For Mac (Rob McElhenney) and Charlie (Charlie Day), it’s rediscovering the joy of the holiday after finding out Mac’s parents broke into homes to steal presents and that Charlie’s mom apparently traded sexual favors with Santa for gifts. That this all involves Charlie assaulting a mall Santa and Frank running around naked and gasping for air is par for the course on Sunny. In attempting to find the true meaning of Christmas, the Gang is that rare television holiday special oddity: They learn absolutely nothing. —JR

17. Lizzie McGuire // "Aaron Carter’s Coming to Town"

Basically, Lizzie, Gordo, and Miranda learn that teen pop star Aaron Carter will be filming a music video nearby and immediately start scheming ways to meet him. Using the classic Disney blueprint of sneaking into anywhere—head-stacks peeking around corners, really weak disguises, etc.—they finally find themselves in Aaron’s dressing room. Lizzie convinces Aaron’s less-than-pleased manager to let one of them meet the singer (because ’tis the season, am I right?). Next, Lizzie pulls the ultimate Christmas move by suggesting Miranda use this opportunity to further her music career. Cute.

But the true Christmas miracle happens when Lizzie “realizes” she “forgot” her tape recorder in Aaron’s room. She knocks on his door and that’s when it happens—that’s when Aaron Carter opens the door, asks “Is this yours?,” Lizzie goes “Yeah.” Then comes Aaron's iconic line: “Merry Christmas, Lizzie McGuire” (totally having had peeped her name on the tape recorder). Oh, and would you look at that? Lo and behold, Aaron Carter has mistletoe over his door, so he kisses Lizzie. If you, like 11-year-old me did at the time, are wondering how kissing a famous celebrity would change the plot of the remaining seasons? Don’t, because none of this is ever mentioned again. The episode ends with the gang joining Aaron Carter on stage to sing everyone’s favorite Christmas song: “I Want Candy.” A true Christmas classic. —Angela Trotti

18. Mad Men // "Christmas Comes But Once a Year"

It’s jarring even nine years later watching cowboyish Lee Garner Jr. emasculate Roger Sterling, he of the equal and opposite swagger, by forcing him to wear that Santa suit. Notably, this episode saw Megan begin to emerge; she’s almost Zen-like in her competence compared to the smoldering emotional wreck anyone too closely connected to Don Draper becomes. Dr. Faye gets hard-done here by that drunken black hole of sexy amorality, too, and we’ll never forgive holy-hell-what-a-lil’-creep Glen Bishop for doing weird things in Sally’s room. —SD

19. Mad Men // "Christmas Waltz"

In its fifth season, Mad Men gave us the best Christmas present money couldn’t buy: Don Draper and Joan Harris just hanging out and drinking. Sure, plenty of other stuff goes down in “Christmas Waltz”—Lane Pryce seals his fate by forging Don’s signature, Harry Crane gets it on with a Hare Krishna acolyte in his office, everyone ignores Pete Campbell getting a shot at Jaguar—but sometimes it’s the little things that feel the best. Don and Joan commiserating in a Midtown bar like the old friends they now are is a particularly heady Christmas magic. —NR

20. Mr. Bean // "Merry Christmas, Mr. Bean"

Rowan Atkinson is often referred to as "The Man With the Rubber Face," and much of that is due to his run as the largely silent but painfully expressive Mr. Bean. But he earned a new distinction with this Christmas episode: The Man With the Turkey on His Head (skip ahead to the 19:35 mark above). Yes, long before Friends made it a thing, Mr. Bean—who was always ahead of his time—was doing it. —JMW

21. Mystery Science Theater 3000 // "Santa Claus Conquers the Martians"

The best way to appreciate 1964’s low-budget bomb Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is through the lens of Mystery Science Theater 3000, which riffed on the movie in 1991. In the movie, Santa is kidnapped by aliens so he can dispense gifts to their children. In the margin of the screen sits Joel (Joel Hodgson), Crow (Trace Beaulieu), and Tom Servo (Kevin Murphy), who attempt to make sense of this misfire. By the time the gang is singing “A Patrick Swayze Christmas,” you, too, will believe in Santa and his ability to breathe unassisted in a Martian atmosphere. —JR

22. The O.C. // "The Best Chrismukkah Ever"

In this episode, Seth uses the Christmas-Hanukkah hybrid holiday he calls Chrismukkah to justify not having to choose between the two girls he’s dating simultaneously, and the pressure of the holidays drives Marissa to both shoplift and drink herself into oblivion. Did the showrunners turn down the dial on the melodrama in the spirit of warm and fuzzy Christmas feelings? No. Did we expect them to? Absolutely not. The endlessly soapy, can’t-stop-watching quality that makes The O.C. such an angsty teen classic is on full display here and, as it turns out, it’s even more fun with Christmas decorations in the background. —EG

23. The Office (NBC) // "Christmas Party"

Considering that the Dunder Mifflin employees all purchased gifts with specific recipients in mind, Michael’s decision to turn the Secret Santa into a Yankee Swap is equal parts disastrous and hilarious: Everyone vies for the iPod that Michael bought for Ryan, and Jim’s trinket-filled teapot for Pam almost ends up as Dwight’s nasal cleanser. Alcohol flows freely, emotions run high all around, and one unlucky regional manager ends up getting flashed by an employee. Does this sound like your office’s Christmas party? In the name of all that is holy, we hope not. —EG

24. The Office (NBC) // "A Benihana Christmas"

Though "Dinner Party" may be widely regarded as the best-ever episode of The Office, then “A Benihana Christmas” deserves honorable mention at the very least. In this hour-long Christmas special, Michael Scott cancels Christmas (and threatens to take New Year’s away) but ultimately ends up taking Dwight, Jim, and Andy to Benihana to get drunk before they return to the office for not one, but two dueling Christmas parties (one that starts at 3 p.m., and a “way more fun party” that starts at 2:45 p.m.) The episode’s soundtrack alone is worthy of a Grammy, featuring covers of classic hit songs like Alanis Morissette’s “You Oughta Know” by Kevin Malone and a 30-second preview of James Blunt's “Goodbye My Lover,” which Michael plays on a loop to mourn his breakup with his realtor Carol (played by Nancy Carell, Steve Carell’s real-life wife). “A Benihana Christmas” answers a lot of questions—for example, how does one correctly butcher a goose?—but also keeps viewers wondering … does Michael know how to ride a bike? —AT

25. The Office (UK) // "The Office Christmas Special"

More than a year after "Interview," The Office's season 2 finale, which initially felt like the series finale, Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant returned to co-write and co-direct this two-part Christmas special that revisited the Wernham Hogg gang—past and present—and answered some truly burning questions, including: Why was there a documentary crew filming this office at all? What happened after the documentary series aired? How many copies of David Brent's cover of "If You Don't Know Me By Now" did Juxtaposition Records actually sell? How is Tim faring with Gareth as the new office manager? Did Dawn and Lee ever get married? And who does your tampons? Just like its two official seasons, The Office Christmas special mixes brutally uncomfortable humor with moments of true sentimentality—none more so than when Tim finally gets the girl. —JMW

26. Rugrats // "Chanukah"

Rugrats was one of the only depictions of a Jewish family on TV when it aired on Nickelodeon in the 1990s. The show made cartoon history when Tommy, Chuckie, and Angelica reenacted the story of Passover in 1995, and a year later, the Rugrats celebrated another Jewish holiday. "Chanukah" follows the same format as the Passover episode, with the babies playing characters in a retelling of the miracle. Grandpa Boris fighting with his rival Shlomo over who will play the lead in the synagogue's Chanukah play also makes for an entertaining B-plot. —Michele Debczak

27. Saturday Night Live // "Justin Timberlake/Justin Timberlake, 2006"

Though SNL always boasts underrated holiday vibes (even the set dressing always feels warm and highly wreathed), this episode features the most Bulk Christmas, in terms of modern classics. It opens with Amy Poehler, Kristen Wiig, and Maya Rudolph crooning "Santa's My Boyfriend," and prominently features the Emmy-winning, 16-bleep Timberlake-Samberg digital short that NBC execs called "Special Christmas Box" during their publicity push (the box, of course, contains a d***). Also noteworthy? Bill Hader and Timberlake singing the Alvin and the Chipmunks classic "Christmas, Don't Be Late" in the monologue. Don't forget. —AW

28. Scrubs // "My Own Personal Jesus"

The hospital on Scrubs always has a way of shaking the faith of at least one main character every episode, and when it finally happens to Turk—Donald Faison, the show's beacon of positivity—after a Christmas Eve shift beset by tragedy, it just hits a little harder. But Scrubs’s humor just wouldn’t be the same without some heartbreak to go along with it, and Turk’s despair is eventually rewarded with a Christmas miracle that restores his faith and gives us one of the best uses of Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman” you’ll ever see on TV. —Jay Serafino

29. Seinfeld // "The Strike"

Going home for the holidays can get a little dull by December 26, but at least our holidays all end. But n the Costanza household, no celebration—no matter how languid—is ever finished until George can pin his father to the ground, a process that could take days. It's all part of Festivus, the Costanza-specific holiday first explored in this late-season episode. This isn't even to mention that we're dealing with a rare Seinfeld episode where Kramer has a job; he returns to H&H Bagels after a decade-long strike for the holiday season, and swiftly uncorks a steam valve. —AW

30. Sherlock // "A Scandal in Belgravia"

Watching a nearly naked (and surprisingly strapping) Sherlock Holmes display all of his cheeky arrogance in Buckingham Palace is Christmas-themed in that it is the best gift many viewers have ever gotten. That aside, this episode also features an awkward yet heartwarming holiday party, during which Benedict Cumberbatch's Sherlock exhibits some mind-blowingly uncharacteristic behavior in the spirit of Christmas: After pelting Molly with a barrage of verbal abuse, he apologizes, wishes her a merry Christmas, then kisses her on the cheek. If that isn’t Christmas-y enough to qualify its inclusion on this list, I’ll eat my deerstalker hat. —EG

31. The Simpsons // "Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire"

Marge loses the holiday spending budget when Bart’s tattoo requires removal and Homer’s work bonus doesn’t come through. An attempt to win it all back at the dog track flops, but they don’t come home empty-handed: Santa’s Little Helper is in tow. Watching this very first episode of The Simpsons can be jarring. The character designs aren’t dialed in, and their movement is gelatinous. But the core conceit of a family that loves one another despite their flaws is present. Homer’s brain may not be in the right place, but his heart is. —JR

32. The Simpsons // "Marge Be Not Proud"

In just 22 minutes of television, “Marge Be Not Proud” serves as a crash course in everything that made The Simpsons the premier comic institution during its golden years. First, you’ve got classic gags, like the deadpan brilliance of Lee Carvallo's Putting Challenge, Homer getting hoodwinked by an Allan Sherman record, and the introduction of “Thrillhouse”—or, more fittingly, “Thrillho.” But all of these sight gags and quotable moments wouldn’t still be remembered nearly a quarter-century later if not for the emotional sincerity of the story, which sees Marge and Bart rebuild their strained relationship after Bart gets caught shoplifting a video game at the local department store right before Christmas. If the show’s seventh season is remembered as its peak, then this is the absolute pinnacle. —JS

33. Six Feet Under // "It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year"

On the first anniversary of their patriarch's death, the Fisher family reflects on their first Christmas without Nathaniel, as David stresses about bringing his new boyfriend home for the first time. This episode isn't all Christmas dinner and funereal tears, though; it opens with a Santa on a motorcycle getting hit by a car. Ta-da! —AR

34. South Park // "Red Sleigh Down"

“My children, you should know something ... I'm packing.” Thus spake Jesus, our half-Rambo, half-Blade dispenser of righteous violence, as he annihilated a legion of extremist militants. Bringing Christmas to Iraq—Cartman’s grand plan to get off Santa’s Naughty List—is harder than it looks, and the Messiah ultimately pays with his life, sacrificing himself to save Santa Claus and our boys in an outrageous mishmash of 2001’s Black Hawk Down and 1999’s Three Kings. But the topper? Kenny just kind of showing up after being dead for a calendar year. It's a Christmas miracle! —SD

35. Tales From the Crypt // "And All Through the House"

Based on the 1950s pulp comics of the same name, Tales from the Crypt was often more campy than scary, but for its Christmas episode, the HBO series went full horror. "All Through the House" follows a woman being terrorized by an escaped asylum patient dressed as Santa Claus on Christmas Eve. The terrifying tale is the perfect antidote to all the feel-good content clogging the airwaves this time of year. —MD

36. Veep // "Camp David"

As is often the case for Selina Meyer, things go horrifically awry in this particular holiday gift exchange. The always-callous Veep regifts the antique pen her daughter gave her during their family Camp David retreat to Chinese President Lu, then accidentally hands the robe she received to her daughter's partner, Marjorie, eventually leading to the terms of an illicit deal being very much scrapped. Don't you hate when Christmas regifting causes an international incident? —AW

37. Victoria // "Comfort and Joy"

It's 1843 and Christmastime has arrived at Buckingham Palace, where a pregnant (again) Queen Victoria is facing her first holiday without her beloved governess-turned-confidante Baroness Lehzen. So Prince Albert is determined to make it Victoria's best Christmas ever and goes about transforming the palace into a yuletide wonderland full of dangling Christmas trees, gifts galore (including an orphaned princess), and family members that no one really wants to deal with. Though Albert (incorrectly) gets a lot of credit for bringing a variety of German Christmas traditions to England, we'll let accuracy slide in this case because what the show recreates is a thing of beauty—and a reminder that donning a crown doesn't mean that you don't also have to deal with overbearing parents, dysfunctional siblings, and/or frustrating in-laws. —JMW

38. The West Wing // "In Excelsis Deo"

Every episode of The West Wing is actually a Christmas episode if you believe, as I do, that President Bartlet is just a very tan Santa Claus with southern-gentleman vibes (he’s from New Hampshire, which is technically south when compared to the North Pole). This one, however, has many other added elements of holiday cheer, including a scene where the President sneaks into a bookshop for some last-minute Christmas shopping—which he forbids anyone from telling the press about—a scene where Josh gives Donna a book with a heartfelt note inside (They hug! It’s important!), and a subplot where Toby organizes a military funeral for a homeless veteran who died wearing his coat. —EG

39. The Wonder Years // "Christmas"

Kevin doesn’t end up getting the color television he so badly wants in this episode, though he does learn that Christmas isn’t about the “tinsel and wrapping paper,” but about memory. Oh, sweet Kevin, it was never about the tinsel or wrapping paper—it’s about what’s wrapped in it. Anyway, given that the holidays are a time to gorge on the sappy, saccharine feelings that you try to bury for the other 11 months of the year so you can get some dang work done, this episode is definitely worth indulging in. —EG

40. The X-Files // "How the Ghosts Stole Christmas"

The ghosts that steal Christmas in this episode are a pair of lovers played by Ed Asner and Lily Tomlin who, after dying in a murder-suicide pact so they could spend eternity together, terrorize Mulder and Scully to the point where they practically can’t tell up from down. It’s trippy, it’s spooky, it’s tons of fun, and it’s all ultimately irrelevant when compared to the final scene of this episode, during which “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” plays in the background while we watch—through a frosted windowpane, no less—the will-they-or-won’t-they partners exchange Christmas gifts even though they had decided not to. —EG