50 best Christmas movies and specials

Christmas movies are by their nature cloying, obnoxious, brain-deadening tests of endurance which sap the will of anyone stuck watching them. But just in case you do find yourself with nothing else to do on a snowed-in weekend afternoon, you better hope the Christmas movie or special on your TV is one of the following. We’re including everything Christmas here, from movies to animated specials to episodes from your favorite TV series. It’s the ultimate Christmas entertainment guide. They range from genuinely good to vaguely tolerable, but in a world where 98% of Christmas movies and specials are barely worthy of the Lifetime Network, these all stand out as the 50 best Christmas movies and specials ever.

50 ‘Miracle on 34th Street’

Yeah, it’s ridiculously corny and old fashioned, but in a sweet way, not a “let’s play on the sympathies of morons” way, which I understand is the Hallmark Channel’s official mission statement. It’s inoffensive and heartwarming, and let’s face it, any movie that starts off with Santa Claus being arrested and institutionalized for being insane can’t be all bad.

49 ‘Skinner’s Sense of Snow’ – ‘The Simpsons’

Oddly, The Simpsons really didn’t do too many Christmas episodes during its glory years, and after about season nine, the show as a whole became the living zombie we know and vaguely tolerate today, and so that’s why it’s so surprising that one of the better episodes they did in that post-glory era was this Christmas episode. Skinner and the kids get snowed into the school, chaos ensues and there’s your episode. But really, any time Skinner was given time to shine, it was almost always a quality episode.

48 ‘Unholy Night’ – ‘American Horror Story’

Here’s the episode’s synopsis: a mental patient played by Ian McShane, AKA the badass from Deadwood, seeks revenge after being locked up in solitary confinement for dressing like Santa Claus and murdering people the previous Christmas. Truly, as heartwarming a holiday tale as any there’s ever been. Also, this is why you should never, ever trust those mall Santas.

47 ‘Road to the North Pole’ – ‘Family Guy’

Another TV Christmas episode. This time it’s from Family Guy, which is always at its best – and most tolerable – when it ditches Peter and just lets Stewie and Brian run wild on a road trip. This time, Stewie gets the brush-off from a mall Santa, and naturally this leads to him vowing to kill Santa. Whacky hijinks ensue and everyone has a merry Christmas.

46 ‘An Echolls Family Christmas’ – ‘Veronica Mars’

This isn’t just a good Christmas themed episode, but a key episode in the series a whole, as it gives critical insight into just how screwed up Veronica’s paramour/arch-nemesis Logan Echoll’s family life happens to be. There are rich dudes stealing from each other, adultery and dads getting stabbed. You know, just like your own family Christmas parties.

45 ‘Santa Claus Conquers the Martians’

Yes, it is a terrible movie, so terrible that it was infamously part of one of the more memorable Mystery Science Theater 3000 episodes, but it is terrible in that amazing so bad that it’s good way. Ignore all the wholesome family-friendly nonsense specials at Christmas time and just pop this one in and crack jokes with your cynical buddies.

44 ‘Norm vs. Christmas’ – ‘Norm’

Come on, it’s Norm MacDonald’s twisted take on Christmas. And while that’s not quite as insane or awesome as it could be – it was on network TV, after all – I’d rather watch Norm MacDonald say anything about Christmas than watch 100 specials of single dads having to get home for the holidays in time to meet their soul-mate Mrs. Santa pen pal or whatever horrible crap ends up on cable this year. Besides, it also features Artie Lange dressing up as Santa Claus, which can’t ever be a bad thing, right?

43 ‘Christmas Day’ – ‘TV Funhouse’

If you don’t remember TV Funhouse, it was a show that aired briefly on Comedy Central by Robert Smigel, AKA Comic the Insult Triumph Dog, AKA the dude who made all those twisted Saturday TV Funhouse shorts for Saturday Night Live. It was appropriately weird – and awesome – with those animated shorts interspersed with puppet hijinks. Naturally, the show’s take on Christmas was just as delightfully offbeat, featuring the show’s human host getting spinal tapped by the puppets so they can extract and then snort his Christmas cheer.

42 ‘Eyes Wide Shut’

It’s definitely not one of Stanley Kubrick’s best movies, and Tom Cruise doesn’t even have sexual chemistry with his own wife, but even a mediocre Kubrick movie is better than the majority of other movies, and certainly better than 99% of Christmas movies. Okay, it’s probably not technically a Christmas movie, but it takes place at Christmas time, and there is a Christmas tree in nearly every scene, and that’s good enough for me.

41 ‘The Year Without a Santa Claus’

If Rankin/Bass Christmas specials don’t melt that glacier around your heart at least a little bit then it’s possible that you have no soul. There is just something off-kilter about them. I don’t know if it’s the weird stop-motion animation or what, but it always feels like watching a really wholesome Tool video. Even the wholesomeness is kind of off-kilter though. In this one, Santa get worn down by life and says fuck it, Christmas is canceled. That’s pretty heavy for little kids, right? Of course, it has a happy ending because, well, come on, but it doesn’t pander either, and that’s a very rare thing when it comes to Christmas specials.

40 ‘How the Ghosts Stole Christmas’ – ‘The X-Files’

Naturally, an X-Files Christmas episode involved a haunted house, some vengeful ghosts and a murder-suicide. It helped that the ghosts were played by Ed Asner and Lily Tomlin. This is a perfectly twisted Christmas episode for perfectly twisted people.

39 ‘Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas’ – ‘Community’

Abed’s insanity gets kicked up a notch, as he creates a stop-motion animated version of his friends during Christmastime, which is as weird and funny as you would imagine. It’s basically an homage to the Rankin/Bass specials, and look, anytime you can turn Chevy Chase into an ultra-disturbing teddy-bear, you know you’re doing something right.

38 ‘The Best Chrismukkah Ever’ – ‘The OC’

The OC was basically a next-gen 90210, only a little snarkier. And sure, while a teen-drama Christmas episode is pretty easy to dismiss, this one actually became kind of a cultural phenomenon. Mention Chrismukkah to any lady in her mid-late 20s and she’ll probably start gibbering like a lunatic about how awesome it was and how much she loved Seth and ohmygoshyouguys! Okay fine, probably some dudes too. But really, if you’re gonna do teen drama – or Christmas – you could do a lot worse than this.

37 ‘The Holiday’

Shut up. Yeah, yeah, it’s a total romantic comedy, but improbably this is one hybrid romantic comedy/Christmas movie that actually works. At worst it’s inoffensively charming. And hey, if it’s good enough for Eli friggin’ Wallach to take part in, it’s more than good enough for you.

36 ‘Simpsons Roasting On an Open Fire’ – ‘The Simpsons’

This isn’t just the very first Christmas episode in The Simpsons history, it was the very first episode period. And while the animation and the writing was still a little clunky, it’s hard to argue against the worthiness of any episode that kicked off one of the most memorable runs in TV history. This set the tone for everything to come.

35 ‘A PE Christmas’ – ‘Aqua Teen Hunger Force’

If you’re in the mood for weird – and hilarious – Christmas specials, check this one out, which features the gang getting mixed up in all sorts of shenanigans, from trying to steal the collection plate during the church Christmas service to recording a very special album together. The episode features a cameo from Public Enemy’s Chuck D because hey, why not?

34 ‘Ludachristmas’ – ’30 Rock’

Naturally, a 30 Rock Christmas episode would descend into crippling family dysfunction, but that’s part of the charm, right? Let everyone else have their wholesome family films. I’ll take Jack dealing with his overbearing mother and Liz trying to keep her ridiculous family from devolving into a gang of depressing lunatics addicted to passive-aggression, which is something I think we can all relate to.

33 ‘The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus’

Another Rankin/Bass special, this one is often overlooked because, well, it’s completely insane. Here’s the synopsis: some weird forest creature named The Great Ak convenes a special forest council to argue the case for Santa Claus being made into an immortal. It features characters named King Awgwa, Weekum, the aforementioned Great Ak, and the Commander of the Wing Demons (!) Basically, some dude dropped a shitload of acid and then made a Christmas movie. Works for me.

32 ‘Marge Be Not Proud’ – ‘The Simpsons’

Like I said before, The Simpsons’ glory years were largely devoid of Christmas specials, but the closest they came to a classic Christmas episode was probably this one, which featured Marge’s illusions of Bart getting shattered after he steals a video game. It’s a Marge heavy episode so, naturally, it’s not quite as amazing as you would hope, but it does feature the classic, “Buy me Bonestorm or go to hell,” line from Bart.

31 ‘The Ref’

Dennis Leary does a little Christmas Eve home invasion and ends up being forced to deal with the couple from Hell, played perfectly by Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis. This is probably Leary’s best movie, but the real joy is watching Spacey and Davis bicker and remind us all of the joys of family during Christmas.

30 ‘The Race’ – ‘Seinfeld’

A lot of people forget that this is a Christmas episode, mostly because they just remember Jerry running that race while the Superman theme spurs him on. But really, the subplot of the episode is where it’s at – Kramer plays a department store Santa who gets convinced to join the Communist party by Elaine’s new boyfriend. Perfect Seinfeld.

29 ‘Batman Returns’

Not really a movie about Christmas, but it takes place at Christmastime, so again, I’m invoking the “good enough” rule. It’s not the best of the Batman movies, but it’s far, far from the worst, and it’s certainly better than the abominable Joel Schumacher Batmans which followed. It’s kind of weird and kind of dark, which let’s be honest, probably sums up your own Christmas, only your Uncle Bob is slightly grosser than Danny DeVito’s Penguin.

28 ‘Cybernetic Ghost of Christmas Past from the Future’ – ‘Aqua Teen Hunger Force’

The first Aqua Teen Hunger Force Christmas episode is a sly play on the whole A Christmas Carol story that everyone in the universe has ripped off at one time or another. A robot from the past or maybe the future shows up to lecture the gang about Christmas, and shows that there is still life left in the Ghost of Christmas Past (or Future) gag.

27 ‘Frosty the Snowman’

Another Rankin/Bass special, this one is just a bowl of hot soup for the soul, you know? There’s nothing especially amazing about it other than, well, that it’s an integral part in the collective childhood of a couple of generations. This is pretty much the Christmas special version of an antidepressant.

26 ‘Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town’

This special about the origins of Santa Claus is, say it with me, a Rankin/Bass production. Yes, I may have an unhealthy attachment to these. Don’t judge me!

25 ‘A Very Sunny Christmas’ – ‘It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’

The gang does Christmas, and really, what more do you need to know? It’s funny and obscene and the perfect antidote to the rest of the schmaltzy Christmas fare.

24 ‘Mail Order Bride’ – ‘Aqua Teen Hunger Force’

The funniest of all the Aqua Teen Hunger Force Christmas episodes, this one sees Carl and Master Shake give themselves a Christmas treat, a treat which comes in the form of a mail order bride from Chechnya. Naturally, things quickly go awry. It’s about time someone finally explored that most innocent of childhood Christmas traditions.

23 ‘2046’

The third chapter in a trilogy of sorts by Chinese director Wong Kar-wai, this movie is almost impossible to sum up. It’s weird, and beautiful and brilliant, and while it might not be to everyone’s tastes – especially if you have an aversion to subtitles – it’s definitely worth checking out. A chunk of the movie takes place on Christmas Eve and Christmas, and while it isn’t explicitly about Christmas, it plays off the themes of holiday loneliness and despair about as well as it gets.

22 ‘Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang’

Another movie that isn’t really about Christmas, but writer/director Shane Black is notorious for setting all his movies during Christmas, and this one is no exception. I mean, the film starts with Robert Downey, Jr. dressed as Santa Claus robbing a toy store, so… good enough for me. This was the beginning of ol’ Iron Man’s comeback and is the best role Val Kilmer has had in the last twenty years. Just a terrific, funny movie.

21 ‘Amends’ – ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’

Believe it or not, Christmas in a town overrun by vampires can get kind of… odd. But oddly touching too, as tormented vamp Angel tries to atone for years of being the worst dude on earth, all while some secret unknown evil (and by the way, this ep sets up the series finale almost four years before it even happens, which… whoa.) gets in his head and tries to get him to off himself by waiting for the sun to come up. But then Angel is redeemed by Buffy’s love, snow falls in Southern California, and it is both ridiculously corny and ridiculously perfect at the same time, just like Christmas.

20 ‘Scrooged’

Bill Murray does A Christmas Carol as a modern day asshole who needs to learn some life lessons. If that isn’t something that naturally appeals to you then I’m not sure we can be friends. It’s Bill Murray!

19 ‘Love, Actually’

I have learned that people either love this movie with all their heart, or they hate it with the passion of a thousand suns. And most interestingly, their reasons for loving it or hating it seem to be pretty much exactly the same. I’m in the love it camp, and let’s just leave it at that.

18 ‘Xmas Story’ – ‘Futurama’

How do you do a Christmas episode set 1,000 years in the future? Well, you make Santa into a murderous robot. This is one of the most beloved episodes in the whole Futurama canon, which means a ton when you consider that nerds everywhere will duel you medieval style if you besmirch this, their favorite show. Or at least send you nasty e-mails.

17 ‘Trading Places’

This is maybe Eddie Murphy’s finest work, and given that he was a supernova of comedy perfection in the early/mid ‘80s, that is saying something. Add in the Duke Brothers, Jamie Lee Curtis’ boobs, Dan Aykroyd, Jamie Lee Curtis’ boobs, a drunken Santa… and Jamie Lee Curtis’ boobs, and you have one of the finest movies to ever take place during the Christmas season. Did I mention Jamie Lee Curtis’ boobs?

16 ‘Home Alone’

Little boy tortures some burglars, chaos ensues… you know the story. And you know the story because this movie was a gigantic hit. I’m pretty sure everyone on the planet has seen this, and if you are of a certain age, then you probably saw it three times while it was still in the movie theater, no matter how much your mom was uncomfortable with the fact that it was violent as hell. Oh, there’s also a storyline in there about an old man and blah, blah, blah, let’s just watch Joe Pesci get his head melted by a blowtorch some more.

15 ‘A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas’

Harold and Kumar run amok on Christmas Eve. What more do you need to know? They are the Hope and Crosby of our fucked up generation.

14 The UK ‘Office’ Christmas Specials’

Shown on back to back nights, these were not just Christmas episodes, but the finale for the UK version of The Office. And it totally delivers, as Dawn and Tim’s story is finally paid off (BTW, Dawn and Tim? Pam and Jim? You weren’t even trying, US version.) and the show achieves closure without descending into needless schmaltz.

13 ‘Mr. Hankey, the Christmas Poo’ – ‘South Park’

If you’re gonna make a show about foul-mouthed little boys, then you almost have to make a Christmas episode about a talking turd, right? Somehow, this ridiculous episode became iconic within the South Park world, probably because it was just so goddamn weird. And remember, this was just before entire animated networks were devoted to weird shit. With this episode, South Park made weird shit fashionable. Literally.

12 ‘A Christmas Story’

There’s a reason why TBS shows this movie for 24 straight hours every Christmas Eve, and that’s because people love them some of this goofy goodness. It was an instant classic almost as soon as it was released, probably because it hit the sweet spot for Baby Boomers when it came to cherished childhood holiday memories. It works for everyone else too, probably because it’s just slightly twisted. Also, this may or may not have inspired me to dare my little sister to stick her tongue to a frozen metal fence in the middle of winter. (Christmas hint: don’t do this.)

11 ‘Lethal Weapon’

The original Shane Black/Christmastime movie, Lethal Weapon doesn’t really have much to do with the actual holiday – aside from the Murtaugh family Christmas tree getting destroyed anyway – but really, you’ve got to ask yourself something – who cares? It’s Lethal Weapon. To hell with Santa, give me Riggs choking out Gary Busey on the front lawn any day.

10 ‘A Christmas Carol’

There have been so many versions of this made over the years – and so many rip-offs – that I could probably just pick 50 of them and call it a day, but instead I’ll just throw them all under one big umbrella and stick them here, which seems like a good spot for such a Christmas staple. Personally, I’m partial to the Mickey Mouse version with Scrooge McDuck and Goofy, but that’s only because I have the maturity level of an emotionally underdeveloped eight year-old.

9 ‘Bad Santa’

For all the misanthropes out there, this is the Christmas movie for you. Billy Bob Thornton plays a piece of human garbage who pretends to be Santa Claus so he can rob people, along with a foul-mouthed dwarf who poses as an elf. Along the way, he learns the true meaning of Christmas, which is apparently mostly balling chicks and getting piss-drunk. Some traditions just never get old.

8 ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’

Charlie and the rest of the Peanuts gang decide that Christmas is getting too commercialized (and this was in 1965, imagine if he had to deal with Black Friday…) and so they decide to seek out the true meaning of Christmas. It’s charming without being smarmy, heartfelt without being corny, and just perfect enough to appeal to both hipsters and the denizens of the corn-belt. This is Charlie Brown at his best.

7 ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’

Come on, have a heart. To many, this is *the* Christmas movie. To others, it’s a corny slice of an America long-lost – if it ever existed in the first place, but for one night every year, you can afford to put aside your skepticism and appreciate that the heartfelt sentimentality of this movie is impossible to resist. This is Christmas in America in all its corny, beautiful splendor.

6 ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’

This is kind of a hybrid Halloween/Christmas movie, but it totally works as Jack Skellington, king of Halloweentown, discovers Christmastown and tries to get his people to embrace the spirit of Christmas. This is one of the most imaginative and strangely beautiful movies ever made. It might be too odd for some people, but those people are jerks.

5 ‘How the Grinch Stole Christmas’

No, this isn’t the Jim Carrey abomination. This is the OG animated version, which is about a Guyism writer who hates Christmas, but gets saved by writing… wait, no, that’s something else entirely. You all know what this is about. It’s a classic, as Dr. Seuss takes on Christmas and makes something appropriately weird and beautifully twisted.

4 ‘National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation’

This might be ranked a little too high for some people, but I don’t care. I defy you to watch this movie and not want to watch it again every Christmas. It’s just perfect, from Cousin Eddie making a mess of thinks to Clark completely losing his shit on everyone. Incidentally, this is also the last watchable movie Chevy Chase ever made, which is truly the biggest Christmas miracle of them all.

3 ‘The Strike’ – ‘Seinfeld’

The Festivus episode. I’m not going to explain why this deserves this spot because you should already know. And if that irritates you, feel free to air your grievances in the comments.

2 ‘Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer’

The classic to end all classics, Rudolph is the king of the Christmas special. Naturally, it’s a Rankin/Bass production, and it is so interwoven with both Christmas and most people’s childhoods that all the elements – the abominable snowman, the Island of Misfit Toys, Rudolph and Herbie’s bromance, all of it – are embedded firmly in the collective cultural conscience. You can reference these things to anybody – anybody – and they’ll know what you’re talking about. I have a goofy smile on my face just writing about it.

1 ‘Die Hard’

What’s a more perfectly American way to celebrate Christmas than by watching a movie about a blue-collar cop who kills a bunch of terrorists during an office Christmas party? Admit it, every time you’re stuck playing Secret Santa in some conference room, you’re secretly hoping Bruce Willis will show up with a gun and pistol whip your German terrorist boss. Sure, he might not seem German, but you never know. I mean, if a movie is gonna end with Christmas music, it better damn well have a hilariously high body count to go along with it. And thankfully, Die Hard delivers the goods, which is why it’s the best Christmas movie or special of them all.

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