A definitive ranking of every Christmas episode of The Simpsons
Buy me Bonestorm or go to hell.
Having run for over 30 years and 649 episodes, The Simpsons has had its fair share of Christmas specials.
At its best, The Simpsons is probably the greatest and most important TV show of all time, but its fall from grace in the post-1990s era has been well documented. Still, it remains a perennial favourite across generations and an agreeable schedule filler for Channel 4, so what with it being the season and all, we thought we should produce a definitive ranking of every Christmas-themed Simpsons episode.
It turned out to be a more mammoth task than expected - while there are several fully-festive episodes, many just start or end during the holidays. We decided to eschew ones that just feature snow (sorry, 'Mr Plow' and 'Homer The Heteric'), but any episode that featured a significant segment set during Christmas was included.
It also became apparent that the show didn't actually do many holiday episodes during its so-called 'golden-era' - seasons two to about nine, give or take. While the very first episode was a holiday story, it took them six years to do another one. After that though, the floodgates opened, and they show has generally done one every other year or so.
This meant that there was a lot of slogging later period Simpsons. Which was strange, as even though it is my favourite TV show of all time, like many people I haven't kept up with the newer series. It was kind of like hanging around with someone you were best mates with in year seven, but now they are weird and really into World of Warcraft and samurai swords, and it's just not the same.
Anyway, here is the list.
19: Gone Boy (season 29, 2017)
‘Gone Boy’ opens with a wonderful Christmas-ized version of the familiar Simpsons opening credits – Bart is on a snowboard instead of a skateboard, the nuclear plant becomes Santa’s workshop, everyone has elf ears. It is delightful.
And then, the episode itself has nothing to do with Christmas, being a Sideshow Bob story with Bart trapped down a well (didn’t they already do that?). Ergo, bottom of the list.
18: Homer vs. Dignity (season 12, 2000)
Technically this episode only becomes a Christmas show in its final act, when Mr Burns, who has been paying Homer to be his ‘prank moneky’, gets him to dress up as Santa and throw fish guts at kids (well, technically, this is during the Thanksgiving parade, but Santa = Christmas episode as far as I’m concerned).
Regardless of holiday-content levels, ‘Homer Vs. Dignity’ is largely remembered for being one of the worst Simpsons episodes of all time – mostly for its mean-spirited main story, rehashing of overused set-up, and the infamous scene where Homer appears to be molested by a panda. Yup, really.
The bit about Lenny getting pudding in his eye is funny though.
17: Simpson Christmas Stories (season 17, 2005)
The Simpsons Halloween episodes are obviously beloved, allowing the show to do anything from CGI animation to elaborate parodies of The Shining. The three-story format has since been adopted for other other non-Halloween editions, like this Christmas special. And it is... not good.
It opens with an uninspired retelling of the birth of Jesus ("Shalom, Dr Nick" is pretty funny, I guess), then a dopey story about Grandpa and Mr Burns getting stuck on a desert island during World War II. The final segment purports to be a take on The Nutcracker, but you can literally feel the writers shrugging their shoulders and giving up a few minutes in, and they start doing an extended vignette of Moe trying to kill himself for some reason. If there's an easy joke, the episode goes for it every time.
16: The Nightmare After Krustmas (season 28, 2016)
Urgh. You how every so often, someone will tell you The Simpsons has gotten good again in recent years? Episodes like this are proof it hasn't. No one needs an Xmas special where Krusty converts to Christianity. Go watch that King of the Hill Christmas special where Bill ends up wearing his ex-wife's dress instead. That's great.
15: White Christmas Blues (season 25, 2013)
Springfield becomes a tourist spot after its the only town in America, so the Simpsons' open up their house to annoying Canadians and Lisa frets about the true meaning of buying presents. Oh, and Rev. Lovejoy has a crisis of faith. Or something. It's basically just a half-arsed collection of story ideas the writers threw at a dartboard. Damn, modern Simpsons can be lazy.
14: Dude, Where's My Ranch? (season 14, 2003)
'Dude, Where's My Ranch?' starts with three minutes of Homer trying to write a new Christmas carol, before flipping to a completely un-festive episode about the family moving to holiday ranch and guesting starring Talking Head's David Byrne. It's just another middling mid-00s episode that's not very good, but you'll watch it if comes on Channel 4.
13: Kill Gil, Volumes I & II (season 18, 2006)
Every minor character eventually ends up moving in with the Simpsons at some point – it is practically Springfield by-law by now. Perennial loser Gil - essentially just Jack Lemon’s desperate salesman from Glengarry Glen Ross, only rendered in yellow - was first introduced in 1997 and got his own episode here - and kind of proved why one joke episodes shouldn’t get a whole 22 minutes.
The Christmas-to-Christmas year-long time frame is nice, but this is standard stuff. Best bit: the murderous Grinch parody 'The Grumple', who would continue to appear in future holiday specials. Expect him to move in with the Simpsons for an episode around season 36.
12: I Won’t Be Home for Christmas (Season 26, 2014)
After a misunderstanding, Marge kicks Homer out on Christmas Eve. It's nice that they're trying to do something more grounded and character-based, but in terms of Homer-Marge marital strife episodes, it is no 'Secrets of a Successful Marriage'. Or 'The Mysterious Voyage of Homer'. Or "Colonel Homer'. Or 'A Milhouse Divided'. Or 'A Streetcar Named Marge'. Or... well, you see where I'm going with this.
11: Tis The 30th Season (season 30, 2018)
For the latest festive episode, the Simpsons head to Florida, for... reasons? Anyway, this one is blander late-period filler, but it gets bonus points for using a Family Guy-style cutaway to shit on Family Guy, and finally addressing why the family still have rabbit ears on their TV.
10: Simpsons Christmas (The Tracey Ullman Show short, 1988)
Before The Simpsons was a show, it was a series of animated bumpers and skits on late-1980s variety show The Tracey Ullman Show. The second season included this short of Bart retelling The Night Before Christmas, and while it is only about a minute long, it is still pretty funny, and more enjoyable than several episodes on this list.
9: Tis the Fifteenth Season (season 15, 2003)
Nothing says the mid-teen seasons of The Simpsons like going through the motions, and damn, if 'Tis the Fifteenth Season’ isn't just lumbering through those motions. The main plot, about Homer and Ned trying to out-good-deed each other, doesn’t really kick in until the last ten minutes, and it’s mostly just a rag-tag collection of festive jokes and skits. The hit ratio of the gags is pretty solid though, and it’s improved by the addition of two short stop-motion animation sequences.
8: Grift of the Magi (season 11, 1999)
'Grift of the Magi' basically comes at the ur-point when The Simpsons went bad. In particular, the tight plotting - one of the show's least-sung but most important qualities - has been replaced by outlandish storylines that come out of nowhere - in this case, evil Furbys are coming alive and destroying other toys. And instead of clever jokes, we get Gary Coleman shouting. Still watchable though.
7: Skinner’s Sense of Snow (season 12, 2000)
Principal Skinner is one of The Simpsons' most wonderful characters. A delightfully boring man that's the perfect vehicle for John Weinstein and Bill Oakley's love of the mundane, yet also with enough depth to provoke genuine emotion in the episodes that dive into his painfully bleak home life.
'Skinner's Sense of Show', where he gets snowed-in at the school along with the show's child cast, isn't quite vintage Skinner, but it definitely at least brushes with what makes him great. The idea that his life is so empty that he's genuinely excited to spend Christmas trapped at work is perfectly true to the character, even if the episode itself doesn't get all the nuance.
6: She of Little Faith (season 13, 2001)
A high-profile episode, featuring Lisa converting to Buddhism and Richard Gere doing a guest spot, the satire of religious corporatisation, culminating at Christmas, is well-held. However, the best stuff in this episode is easily the hilarious opening acting, which is virtually unrelated to the main plot. Weaving in a great parody of 1950s sci-fi movies, some wonderful animation of Bart’s hamster astronaut, and Milhouse’s eyebrows being blown off, the whole sequence is a reminder that The Simpsons could still be great in the early 2000s.
5: The Fight Before Christmas (Season 22, 2010)
The second attempt to do a Christmas 'Treehouse of Horror' is an improvement of King Sized Homer proportions. The first two instalments are pretty great - first, Bart goes to a trippy Santa's Workshop, and then Marge stars in an Inglourious Basterds parody. Gimmick episodes really tend to kick modern Simpsons out its rut, and the inventive character redesigns and backgrounds easily make up for any dud jokes here.
And then it gets weird. In the third segment, US domestic goddess and white collar felony Martha Stewart guests, and show strips over itself to make lame sycophantic jokes.
Then the finale goes completely nuts, in an elaborate Muppet Show riff, made with real live action and slightly terrifying puppets. Katy Perry turns up in a vinyl dress I can't believe got past Fox's standards and practices, and the episode ends with the Moe puppet appearing to perform cunnilingus on Perry. It is definitely a memorable episode, to say least.
4: Holidays of Future Passed (season 23, 2011)
This episode was famously written as a potential finale for the show – though, of course, we all know now The Simpsons will never, never end.
Still, the flash-forward really seemed to get the show’s mojo back, at least for one episode. The future jokes come thick and fast, and t it almost feels like an episode of Futurama than The Simpsons. ‘Lisa’s Wedding’ still remains the show’s best glimpse into what’s to come, this is easily one of the funniest Simpsons of the twenty-first century.
(Though Lisa deserves better than to just end up with Milhouse).
3: Miracle on Evergreen Terrace (season 9, 1997)
The Simpsons only started really doing Christmas episodes towards the end of the 1990s – hence there’s not many from the shows golden era. ‘Miracle on Evergreen Terrace’ comes at the tail end of it, a tad below the show’s very best moments, but still very solid. It’s a nice satire on a media circus, if not quite 'Homer Badman', with the family essentially getting milkshake ducked after losing all their possessions on Christmas Eve.
The final scene of the family being genuinely happy without any mortal good is also genuinely sweet - even if it one of those lazy conclusions that leaves the status quo irrevocably shattered, only to be reset next episode without explanation, that later seasons are so guilty of.
2: Simpsons Roasting On An Open Fire (season 1, 1989)
Yes, when you go back at watch first seasons episodes of The Simpsons, the animation is all wonky and Homer voice sounds wrong and it all just feels a bit, well, ewwwww.
But you’ve got to put yourself in the headspace of what it was like watching the show’s first episode back in 1989. There hadn’t been a successful animated show in primetime since The Flintstones, and smart anarchic sitcoms like Community, Arrested Development and 30 Rock were still over a decade away. The Simpsons was outrageous and surreal, and like nothing else on TV. It is hard to overstate how revolutionary this first episode would have felt, with its elaborate tattoo removal lasers and parade of deadbeat Santas.
That’s not to say that this is only worth watching a history piece. It’s still a wonderful episode, a classic Homer and Bart story, which delivers jokes and pathos effortlessly, and established the Simpsons as working-class family, never more than one crisis away from money troubles – an important element of the show sorely missing in modern Simpsons. Plus it gave us everyone's favourite adorable runt, Santa’s Little Helper.
It might not hit the heights the show would in the years to come, but it remains a reassuring warm blanket of an episode, filled with fond memories, and that’s what a Christmas special should be.
1: Marge Be Not Proud (season 7, 1995)
What made the classic era of The Simpsons so great wasn’t just that it was hilarious – it was that it told tightly plotted 22-minutes stories that could that could really hit you. And arguably, there is no greater emotional ringer in the show’s thirty years than the seventh season’s Christmas episode.
The first holiday episode since the pilot, ‘Marge Be Not Proud’ is the one where is caught stealing a video game from the mall, and Marge finds herself unsure how to react. It ends on a shamelessly tear-jerking, heart-warming moment – but what Bart goes through in the lead up in excruciating. The scene where he asks Milhouse’s mother if they can hang out and “do mom stuff” literally kills me every time. There are tons of Homer and Bart episodes, but this is one of the rare stories to nail Marge's relationship with her special little guy.
Just look at the ending, where Bart excitedly opens his present, and we think he is finally going to get the violent game he wants – only for it to be revealed to be boring-ass golf sim Lee Carvallo’s Putting Challenge. It’s a great punchline, but it is also so perfect. It is exactly the sort of terrible game your mum would get you. Only someone who truly loves you can get you a gift so, so close to what you want that also misses the mark so spectacularly.