The Origins of 10 Popular Christmas Carols

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iStock.com/artisteer

You've sung them while clutching cups of hot cocoa, cozying up around a fire, or stomping through snowdrifts. You've heard them played in shopping malls, churches, and holiday parties. You know all their words by heart. But do you know how some of the world's best-known Christmas carols were created?

1. "Silent Night"

The legend behind one of the most popular Christmas carols in the world plays out as a sort of Christmas miracle. The story goes that Father Joseph Mohr of Oberndorf, Austria, was determined to have music at his Christmas Eve service, even though the organ at his beloved St Nicholas Church was broken. So, he penned a poem and asked his friend Franz Gruber to compose a score for it that would not demand an organ. The truth, however, is a little less dramatic.

In 1816, the Catholic priest wrote the poem "Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!" while stationed at a pilgrim church in Mariapfarr, Austria. When he transferred to St. Nicholas's two years later, he did ask Gruber to help him write guitar music for the poem, which the two performed—backed by a choir—on Christmas Eve of 1818. "Silent Night" was translated into English more than 40 years later by Episcopal priest John Freeman Young, who is responsible for the version Americans favor. 

2. "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town"

Penned by James "Haven" Gillespie, this jolly tune was first performed on American singer Eddie Cantor's radio show in 1934. But for all its mirth, its inspiration came from a place of grief. In his book Stories Behind the Greatest Hits of Christmas, Ace Collins explains how Gillespie was a vaudevillian-turned-songwriter who'd fallen on hard times, both financially and personally. Gillespie got the call to pen a Christmas tune for Cantor just after learning his brother had died.

Initially, he rejected the job, feeling too overcome with grief to consider penning a playful holiday ditty. But a subway ride recollecting his childhood with his brother and his mother's warnings that Santa was watching changed his mind. He had the lyrics in 15 minutes, then called in composer John Coots to make up the music that would become a big hit within 24 hours of its debut.

3. "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing"

The earliest incarnation of this carol was a poem penned in 1739 by Charles Wesley, brother of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. However, the original opening line as it appeared in his collection Hymns and Sacred Poems was "Hark how all the welkin rings," using a rarely invoked term for heaven. Anglican preacher and Wesley contemporary George Whitefield tweaked the opening line to the titular one we know today.

In these early versions, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" was sung to several different tunes, including "New Britain." The jauntier tempo it's sung to today came from German composer Felix Mendelssohn. More than 100 years after it was written, English musician William H. Cummings paired the carol to Mendelssohn's cantata Fetgesang. While this is the variant that has caught on, it is a development unlikely to be appreciated by Wesley or Mendelssohn. The former believed the hymn was best sung slowly, while the latter was a strictly secular musician.

4. "Deck the Halls"

This jaunty tune dates back to 16th century Wales, where its melody and much of the lyrics were pinched from the New Year's Eve song "Nos Galan." Lines like "Oh! how soft my fair one's bosom/ Fa la la la la la la la la," were transformed into Yuletide wishes like "Deck the halls with boughs of holly/ Fa la la la la la la la la." This musical makeover was done by Scottish folk music scribe Thomas Oliphant, who built his reputation on old melodies with new lyrics. In 1862, his "Deck the Hall" was published in Welsh Melodies, Vol. 2. He'd go on to become a renowned translator of songs as well as a lyricist for the court of Queen Victoria.

But Oliphant's version is not the one most commonly sung today. Now called "Deck the Halls," lines like "Fill the meadcup, drain the barrel," have been swapped for "Don we now our gay apparel." This variant became popular from revised music sheet printings made in 1877 and 1881.

5. "Good King Wenceslas "

This unconventional but beloved carol dates back to 1853 when English hymnwriter John Mason Neale first penned its lyrics. Set to the tune of the 14th-century carol "The Time Is Near For Flowering," "Good King Wenceslas" focuses on the journey of a kind man who set out in terrible weather on the post-Christmas holiday of Saint Stephen's Day to provide aid to poor neighbors.

This titular "king" was a real man, Wenceslaus I, Duke of Bohemia, who ruled from 924 to 935, when he was assassinated by his own brother, Boleslav the Cruel. Unlike his nefariously nicknamed sibling, Wenceslaus was adored by his subjects. His great acts of charity led to him posthumously being declared a king, and an eventual upgrade to sainthood. He is now the patron saint to the Czech Republic.

6. "All I Want For Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth"

This saccharine song is sung from the perspective of a child with a simple wish, and a fleet of such children was in fact its inspiration. In 1944, grade school teacher Donald Yetter Gardner and his wife Doris sat down with a group of second-graders in Smithtown, New York, to help them compose a song for Christmas. While there are different versions of the origin, they all involve a bunch of children saying, "All I want for Christmas is…" It's not so much that any students wished for those absent front teeth, but more that Gardner was charmed by their requests hindered by toothless lisping.

As Gardner told it, he went home that night and in just 30 minutes penned the Christmas tune that would earn him royalties until his death in the fall of 2004. A performance at his school of the song led to a meeting with Witmark music company, and ultimately to Spike Jones and his City Slickers recording the ditty in 1948. Gardner gave up his teaching job to become a music consultant and editor, and later remarked in awe of his own success, "I was amazed at the way that silly little song was picked up by the whole country."

7. "Jingle Bells"

Though one of the most popular non-religious Yuletide tunes, "Jingle Bells" was not originally conceived for Christmas time at all. Penned by James Lord Pierpont in 1850s Savannah, Georgia, the song originally titled "The One Horse Open Sleigh" was intended to celebrate Thanksgiving. The local Unitarian church where he'd later play the song on the organ boasts historical markers declaring it the birthplace of "Jingle Bells." However, some sources insist Pierpont was belting the memorable melody as early as 1850, when he still lived in Medford, Massachusetts. Debate still rages about the true birthplace of the song.

"Jingle Bells" was renamed in 1857 when its lyrics and notes were first published. Decades passed before it rose to prominence. Yet it made history on December 16, 1965, becoming the first song broadcast in space. The crew of Gemini 6 followed reports of seeing Santa Claus with an improvised version of "Jingle Bells," which included bells and a harmonica that they had snuck onboard. Mission control responded to the surprise serenade with, "You're too much, 6."

8. "O Tannenbaum "

Commonly translated as "O Christmas Tree," this carol comes from Germany. The earliest version of the song dates back to the 16th century, when Melchior Franck wrote a folk song about the tradition of bringing a small fir tree into one's home to decorate and sit beside the seasonal nativity scene. This decorating tradition and its celebratory song moved from Germany to the U.S. along with its emigrants.

Revisions to the lyrics were made in 1819 by Joachim August Zarnack, and in 1824 by Leipzig organist Ernst Anschütz. As Christmas tree trimming caught on in the 1800s, "O Tannenbaum" grew in popularity. In the past century, the song has been included on countless Christmas albums as well as in such family entertainment as Disney's Swiss Family Robinson, Ernest Saves Christmas, and A Charlie Brown Christmas.

9. "O Little Town of Bethlehem"

This religious carol tells the tale of the birth of Jesus, and was inspired by a pilgrim's moving Christmas Eve experience in the Holy Lands.

Phillip Brooks was a distinguished man of faith and intellect. A Boston-born Episcopalian preacher, he'd earned a Doctorate of Divinity from the University of Oxford, taught at Yale University, and publicly advocated against slavery during the Civil War. But he's best known for penning "O Little Town of Bethlehem" after a life-changing journey.

In 1865, Brooks rode on horseback from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, where he participated in the Church of the Nativity's five-hour long Christmas Eve celebration, complete with hymns. Returning home, this experience proved so profound that he channeled it into the song sung in churches to this day. Its first public performance was held three years later, performed by the children's choir of his church on December 27.

10. "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas"

The lyrics to the hopeful yet mournful carol "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas" were penned by Hugh Martin for a scene in the 1944 movie musical Meet Me In St. Louis. Judy Garland sings the bittersweet song to her little sister, trying to cheer her up as both lament their family's move away from their hometown. But Garland and director Vincente Minnelli weren't happy with Martin's early, much more maudlin drafts.

These included lines that Martin would later describe as ''hysterically lugubrious," like ''Have yourself a merry little Christmas/It may be your last.... Faithful friends who were dear to us/Will be near to us no more.''

Martin initially refused to revise the lyrics, but a talking to from actor Tom Drake set him straight. "He said, 'You stupid son of a b***h!'" Martin recollected, "'You're gonna foul up your life if you don't write another verse of that song!''' Ultimately, Martin gave the song a more hopeful leaning, first for the movie then again in 1957 at the request of Frank Sinatra. For Ol' Blue Eyes, he changed "We'll have to muddle through somehow" to the more jolly "Hang a shining star upon the highest bough." The song has since became a standard, in both forms.

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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