The British Christmas special has no real Stateside analogue. The confluence of the U.K. television model and the particular place Christmas holds in the British popular imagination make sure of that. Here in the States, neither the conventional 22-episode, fall-to-spring structure of the TV season, nor modern prestige dramas, with their more abbreviated season, leave room for a stand-alone Christmas special (that may even take place in a different reality from show canon). Meanwhile, the American version of the holiday has been increasingly larded up with cultural baggage that places it at the center of an imagined War On Christmas, its artillery loaded with ammunition like “The Christmas Shoes” and Starbucks boycotts.
Not so in the more secular U.K., in a culture that also doesn’t have a holiday like Thanksgiving to siphon off any significance that would otherwise fall by default to Christmas. If you’re British and want to celebrate a holiday that brings families together, keeps alive its share of musty old traditions, and involves the mass consumption of turkey, you really only have one option. And then there’s the format aspect. Many American TV shows, maybe most, have Christmas episodes, but the British Christmas special is a different animal altogether. It stands apart from the rest of a given show—often literally, airing months or even years apart from the show’s run—and typically has something to say, hopeful, cynical, or otherwise, about the very idea of Christmas.
What follows is by no means a comprehensive list of Christmas specials, as most British shows since the ’60s, especially comedies, have had at least one. Instead, it’s an introduction to the medium and a way to get into the Christmas spirit, for better and for worse.
Given Downton Abbey’s penchant for romanticizing English tradition and early 20th-century aesthetics, it’s little wonder that the starter for this Christmas-special binge is as Christmasy as possible in terms of staging and imagery. It’s a shot of wassail with a figgy pudding chaser, a Christmas cracker popping in a human face, forever. As goofy as the show can be at times, this—the fully trimmed tree in the great hall, a marriage proposal in the snow—is the stuff that changed the calcified hearts of Ebenezer Scrooge and the Grinch. Especially compared to subsequent Downton Christmas specials populated by out-of-left-field deaths and irrelevant subplots, this first of the lot, which capped off the show’s second season, falls just on the right side of cloying and could likely put anyone in the Christmas mood.
Streaming on: Amazon Prime
An appropriately jaundiced-eyed palate cleanser after the first entry, 1995’s “Knowing Me Knowing Yule” came relatively early in the lifespan of Steve Coogan’s most iconic character. Everything’s already there, though: Alan Partridge’s witlessness, narcissism, and bizarre and always quotable sense of logic. “God is a gas” and “I really can’t believe a millipede has the intelligence to appreciate just how lucky he really is” are up there with the best of Partridge’s tortured conclusions. As its central character moans about a last-minute cancellation by Raquel Welch, badly lip syncs an abortive “Twelve Day Of Christmas” parody, and wheels out an enormous Christmas cracker with a dialysis machine at the center, “Knowing Me Knowing Yule” simultaneously celebrates and skewers the artifice and hoary tropes of Christmas-centric pop culture. Nothing sums this up better than Partridge’s very first lines as the special begins: “What is Christmas? It’s a little robin redbreast petrified by the wind. It’s an orphan in a blanket being helped into a shed. And it’s a snowman whose nose carrots have been stolen and subsequently eaten by a gypsy thief.”
Streaming on: Hulu
Aside from introducing Karl Pilkington to the world, this is likely the best thing Ricky Gervais has done since the flawless original run of The Office. Extras had flashes of brilliance, but was always fairly uneven, pushing cringe comedy so hard that it broke (does anyone really believe Kate Winslet or anyone else would grumble about being bored by the Holocaust, or that David Bowie would improvise a song calling a fan a universally hated “little fat man”?). The series never quite knew if it wanted us to laugh at or with its protagonist, and sometimes felt above all like an excuse for Gervais to show off his friendships with famous people.
The Christmas special focuses on the show’s strongest elements: the friendship between Gervais’ Andy Millman and Ashley Jensen’s Maggie Jacobs; the antics of Stephen Merchant’s hapless agent character, Darren Lamb; and commentary on the tension between art and commerce. This culminates in an impassioned speech about the role of celebrity in society that indicts the public, the media, and celebrities for perpetuating a perverse and antisocial cycle of voyeurism and schadenfreude, which happens to be some of the best acting Gervais has ever done. Christmas is only on the periphery of the special, represented with insert shots of decorations, recurring jingle bells in the score, and “Angels We Have Heard On High” played behind a climactic moment of epiphany. But its central message of the importance of love and human connection over consumerism make it among the most genuinely heartfelt of all holiday specials.
Streaming on: HBO GO
More counter-programming to keep all that “love and human connection” shit from getting too overbearing. Operating under the premise that the hedonistic but ultimately naive Jez would love the traditions and cozy trappings of Christmas, Peep Show’s “Seasonal Beatings” finds the more pessimistic Mark and fate thwarting that at every turn. To Mark, thoughtful gifts amount to “aggressive generosity designed to make me feel bad.” His gifts are all two-for-one kitchen tongs and pre-owned sleep masks and copies of SuperFreakonomics, a tendency toward the unsentimental that we learn runs in the family when Mark’s dad gives him a used paper shredder. The disappointments mount, with undercooked turkey, missing potatoes (Jez, who was supposed to handle vegetables, denies responsibility, saying that potatoes are not vegetables and “not earth, but salt”—or maybe bread), and rising tension thanks in large part to Mark’s very cold, very English dad. It’s practically a Christmas miracle when Mark redeems the day by shredding a Christmas dinner in his new crosscut shredder, which makes sense in context.
Streaming on: Hulu
If you didn’t know this was a Christmas special, you’d have no reason to think as much. The word “Christmas” isn’t uttered once, and the whole premise is instead centered on sending familiar Little Britain characters to far-flung locations around the world. This has the added benefit of breathing some fresh life into characters and sketches that too often became stale and one-note even after starting out strong, thanks to Little Britain’s unfortunate tendency to repeat sketch elements and beats ad nauseum, with only minor differences setting apart each recurring character’s appearance on the show. But it also does suggest a very Christmasy belief in the universality of the human condition, down to a Spanish counterpart to David Walliams’ terminally lazy misanthrope, Carol, and an American equivalent of Matt Lucas’ vicious, hypocritical weight guru, Marjorie Dawes. The message is clear: Wherever you go, people are just as dumb, cruel, and intransigent as they are back home. Merry Christmas, everyone!
Streaming on: Hulu
Back firmly in the land of explicitly Christmas-centric specials, Rev. brings to bear some of the same familial holiday tensions that Peep Show previously seized, but with a warmth that Peep Show very deliberately avoids. Todd VanDerWerff once likened Rev. to Parks And Recreation and Community, and it’s an apt comparison. All three shows balance occasionally dark humor with an ultimately hopeful worldview and a sense of affection among characters surprisingly rare in a world where most TV laugh lines are insults. There’s a touch of broad comedy and antiquated British farce to the balls being juggled and then dropped all at once in Rev.’s Christmas special, but in the end it delivers what most people are probably looking for by late December: a lived-in feel for holiday tradition and convention and a sense of feel-good triumph.
Streaming on: Hulu
Meanwhile, an earlier show centered on a priest, albeit a Catholic one, brings a simultaneously darker and sillier edge to the holiday special. Technically, the show’s main characters, not to mention its creators, were Irish, but it was a U.K. production developed for Channel 4, and the black humor and taste for the surreal that defined Father Ted have always been unifying features of the British Isles. At any rate, the set decoration and sweaters in “A Christmassy Ted” scream Christmas, but it’s otherwise the exact sort of roundabout route to the Christmas special you’d expect from the show. There’s no big message to learn; despite it being an episode thick with guest-star members of the clergy in a show already about actual priests, there’s little outright mention of Christianity’s biggest holiday. Even a plot development that seems to be sending the show down a “Father Ted takes in an orphan and learns the true meaning of Christmas” path turns out to be a fake-out meta gag. Instead, the special wends its way through a shaggy-dog plot in true Father Ted fashion, with a storyline that turns on a great escape from a department store’s lingerie section, an international award for priests, and a would-be award thief. Lessons about greed and hubris are briefly learned and then swiftly forgotten—just as in life, Christmastime or no.
It makes sense that the Extras finale ended up as solid as it did, given that Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant had already cut their teeth on one of the strongest Christmas specials of all time. The Office could have taken some shortcuts and still probably kept its fans happy: New management took over and David Brent is back in the boss’ chair! Dawn dumped Lee and is moving back to Slough! Instead, it made the inventive choice of treating the first two seasons as an actual documentary series—something the American version only half-heartedly bothered to toy with in its last season—that made its cast and especially Brent, into Z-list celebrities, something that only Brent himself takes seriously as a path to greater fame and fortune. Meanwhile, it brings Dawn back from Florida in a non-contrived way, and the end result of it all is a special filled with earned moments every bite as life-affirming as the second season finale was heartbreaking. It’s also really, really funny.
It’s hard to imagine a more fitting end to hours of holiday programming. Following in the Twilight Zone, just-barely-sci-fi footsteps of the rest of Black Mirror, “White Christmas” seems to be a series of only vaguely connected vignettes presented with a framing device whose reality is just suspect enough to put a question mark at the heart of the special. After the scales fall away and the hidden thread tying everything together becomes clear, we’re presented with two fates whose grimness feel most acute at the height of the Christmas season: Being cut off from the rest of human society, from everyone you’ve ever known or loved, and being trapped with a radio blaring nothing but Christmas music without end for literally thousands of years.
Streaming on: Netflix, beginning December 25