People looking to celebrate Halloween, Thanksgiving, or Christmas with their favorite TV show are almost certainly in luck. A show that’s on the air in the fall has a better-than-average chance of airing episodes in October, November, and December; almost every show has at least one episode for each holiday. But the rest of the year is patchier. Holidays are either too obscure, too religious in nature, or too relegated to corners of the calendar the TV season doesn’t reach. And finding a great episode with which to celebrate those out-of-the-way holidays is even harder.
Take, for instance, New Year’s Day, a holiday that falls in the two or three weeks of the year most American TV networks just don’t program and has to compete with its big brother Christmas for notice otherwise. But Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick turned the holiday into a time for quiet reflection on the year that was and muted hope for the year ahead on two of their series, thirtysomething and My So-Called Life. Both episodes are good, but former is the best pick for a New Year’s celebration. Taking place in the midst of an arc where a major character battled cancer, the episode is both somber and joyful, gathering the whole of the show’s terrific ensemble in one place to greet 1991.
The 15th episode of The Simpsons’ fourth season is a combined holiday affair, touching on Valentine’s Day, Presidents’ Day, and, due to a miscued record over at KBBL, Halloween. But the episode’s main plot is one of cupids and conversation hearts, an extended love letter to one of The Simpsons’ most dependable and endearing supporting players: Ralph Wiggum. It’s a bit of a poisoned love letter, though, as Ralph’s misinterpretation of Lisa Simpson’s fundamental kindness winds up getting the kid’s heart broken in front of a live television audience. It’s a hilariously honest treatment of a holiday that can be downright nasty for kids, and actress Nancy Cartwright does some career-best work finding the poignancy in a character who’s usually deployed for dunderheaded one-liners. But “I Love Lisa” finds its happy ending, just as St. Valentine intended: With Lisa and Ralph choo-choo-choosing to stay friends, while the strains of that classic Valentine’s anthem, “Monster Mash,” waft through the air.
It’s inevitable that every four years, there will be an extra day in the calendar; every leap year has a leap day. But rather than treat this regular occurrence like any ol’ day at work, 30 Rock packs those extra 24 hours with problems only Leap Day itself can solve. Tracy Jordan remembers he has a Benihana gift certificate with a hefty sum left on it, expiring March 1, just in time for he and the staff to go out for an epic quest to eat as much food as $50,000 can buy. Liz, on the hunt for some cash and security of her own, is persuaded by Jenna to attend a Leap Day party thrown by Liz’s dorky grade-school alum, now an Internet millionaire. And each story is underscored by the fictional Leap Day mythology—a yellow-suited man with a barbershop quartet hat and, um, gills, trades candy for children’s tears—which extols the virtues of maximizing this magical free day on the calendar. The clock is ticking, and everything is heightened. Fittingly, the comedy is tight, and the surreal elements are but a backdrop to the already-surreal episode. “Leap Day” is full of the aforementioned tear-candy, launching an allure that changed February 29 forever.
This episode was do-or-die for the now-popular, then-beleaguered sitcom. CBS had only brought it back for a third season by the skin of its teeth, and it was one of the first shows to return after the 2007-08 Writers Guild strike. The challenge kicked off one of the best stretches of episodes in the show’s run, beginning with this look at an epic night of drinking one St. Patrick’s Day. The story had actually been repurposed from one the writers had intended to do about New Year’s Eve, but it fit even better for a holiday with even TV traffic. It features Ted, the series’ central character and narrator, at his lowest ebb, but also convincingly puts him back on the path that will lead to the titular woman after a wild and crazy night. It’s also got the introduction of the series’ famed yellow umbrella, a neat way of building an episode around a holiday that’s primarily known for drinking, one of the show’s best credits tags, and a particularly overwrought theory on the identity of the Mother.
Gangster stories have always done well with religious ceremonies and celebrations, so it’s no surprise that Boardwalk Empire came up with one of TV’s best—and only—Easter episodes. It’s a quiet, slow-moving hour, in which the various characters split off to celebrate Easter with families both blood and invented. It’s also an episode that takes seriously the idea of the holiday being about rebirth, resurrection, and rejuvenation, as it represents something of a crossroads for all of the characters in the series’ third season plot about a building war between main character Nucky Thompson and antagonist Gyp Rosetti. Despite those ties to the larger story, however, the episode lifts neatly out of the season as a whole and offers a look at Easter celebrations in early 20th-century America. There’s also one of the sweetest romantic subplots on television, an unexpected murder, and some over-the-top prayer action.
No holiday episode captures the spirit of its special day in quite the same way as the long-awaited second-season premiere of South Park. The previous season had ended with a cliffhanger and the promise that, upon the show’s return, the identity of Cartman’s father would be revealed. But Trey Parker and Matt Stone, those lovable pranksters, instead kicked off the season with an episode that never once made reference to Cartman’s parentage, after Comedy Central had aired a steady deluge of commercials reminding viewers to tune in for the big reveal. (These commercials, one of which aired just before the episode began, went out of their way to stress that all this was going down on April 1.) The angry reaction from many fans spooked the network into moving the episode payoff “Cartman’s Mom Is Still A Dirty Slut” up almost a month in the planned rotation.
Aaron Sorkin’s strength has always been showing how funny, talented professionals form surrogate families of like-minded outsiders. In the luminous Sports Night episode “April Is The Cruelest Month,” the family of the titular sports show is on the verge of shattering apart. Meant-for-each-other couple Jeremy and Natalie have broken up. Co-anchor best friends Dan and Casey have too, after Dan petulantly humiliates Casey on-air. And producers Dana and Isaac face the probability that their show is about to be gutted by the suits. Healing comes in the form of Jeremy’s office Passover seder, however, with his comically elaborate rewrite of the Haggadah allowing everyone to come together in the holiday spirit of forgiveness—and hope. As Jeremy says, “Passover’s about the telling of a great story to people who’ve never heard it. It’s usually small children, but Gentiles will do.” It’s there, with Isaac ad-libbing as Moses (“It’s about damn time the cavalry showed up around here, wouldn’t you say”), that this singular family, breaking matzah by candlelight, truly embodies the Sorkin idea that the holidays are best shared with the family you choose.
Joe Murray’s Rocko’s Modern Life had a penchant for dark, bizarre humor while firing a hint of a message at kids. The final episode of the third season—which aired the day before Earth Day in 1996—is a perfect example: a fast-paced satirical musical endorsing the benefits of recycling while condemning those who ignore environmentally friendly practices to a painful fate. Rocko visits the town dump and watches the rest of the citizens perform a catchy number spelling out R-E-C-Y-C-L-E and C-O-N-S-E-R-V-E “Or else you’re gonna get what you deserve.” But even after sorting through the excessive waste, everyone seemingly gives up when faced with Conglom-O’s rampant pollution. (Corporate motto: “We Own You.”) But thanks to Rocko’s doe-eyed optimism and a Mr. Smith Goes To Washington vibe—plus the help of a musical reprise—the citizens of O-Town prove they can fight city hall and corporate America with the help of some catchy songs.
Roseanne’s depictions of family dynamics were (and continue to be) lauded for their realism. But for as many problems as the series tackled, it was more remarkable to see how the writers dealt with the Conners’ mundane interactions. This third season episode—whose loose plot involves a low-key Mother’s Day barbecue—is no exception. Its only mild conflict occurs when Roseanne (unsuccessfully) tries to convince her talk-radio-addict grandmother Nana Mary (a delightfully stubborn, eccentric Shelley Winters) to move in with the family. Otherwise, “Scenes From A Barbecue” subtly weaves together matriarchal threads that are both humorous (Roseanne and Jackie’s mother, Bev, irritates everybody via one of her usual shrewish phone calls, before Nana Mary gives her a dose of her own passive-aggressive medicine) and sentimental (Dan gives Roseanne a photo of the family as her present). Any frustrations with relatives pale next to the warmth and conviviality of the day, and the episode closes with a sing-along. In the end, the complex mother-daughter interactions add up to an episode full of small pleasures.
[Ed. note: This story was written in 2013.]
First off, The Cosby Show’s Father’s Day episode isn’t set on, or anywhere near, the third Sunday in June. After Clair Huxtable mentions that her husband never wears the bathrobe he received the previous Father’s Day, Cliff trots out all of the ridiculous gifts his children have given him over the years, including a belt-tie-hat-suspenders ensemble that lights up. He demands better gifts, so in typical Huxtable fashion, the family celebrates Father’s Day in early December, not because it’s a holiday, but to satisfy the whims of their funky-sweater-clad patriarch. The gifts this time around are still mostly awful—a weather vane and an electric ice-cream scooper among them—but Cliff finally learns to appreciate the effort the kids put in and the affection behind the silly gifts.
[Ed. note: This story was written in 2013.]
Fourth Of July episodes of classic TV shows are among the most rare holiday episodes, because the holiday itself falls at a point on the calendar when the TV schedule used to be a dead sea of reruns. That’s why this hilarious episode of The Bob Newhart Show—in which Bob and Emily spend the holiday locked in a storage area, while their friends are upstairs, suffering through a Fourth Of July so bad that it’s practically an argument for Socialism—was first shown in October, three months after the deluge of Bicentennial celebrations that must have left much of the country hoping to never hear of Independence Day again. The producers must have decided that it was worth the risk just so they could show half the cast, including the late Marcia Wallace, dressed in Uncle Sam costumes. They were right.
Paddy Chayefsky’s first major television script was an attempt at creating a modern holiday perennial along the lines of A Christmas Carol or It’s A Wonderful Life, but for Jews: The day before Rosh Hashanah, cantor Boaz Sternberg (Joseph Buloff) suffers a crisis of faith and declares that he cannot sing during the High Holidays. On his way to seek counsel from a rabbi in the city, Sternberg regains his faith after two chance encounters on the New York subway enable him to reunite a young Dutch couple (Irja Jensen and Werner Klemperer) who were separated after being sent to concentration camps by the Nazis. Somewhat generic in its treatment of Sternberg’s relationship with God, “Holiday Song” comes alive in Buloff’s scenes with Jensen, whose character is shell-shocked and suicidal even after seven years of freedom. Faith may be interrupted, but empathy is not. Though Philco restaged it live the following year, the most enduring legacy of “Holiday Song” was unanticipated: The ending, in which Chayefsky affirms the existence of God by identifying a supernatural figure (a phantom subway guard) who steered Boaz toward the refugees, plays like a dry run for one of Rod Serling’s famous Twilight Zone twists.
The characters of The Sopranos are so committed to the old way of doing things, they cling to the holidays of their Italian-American ancestry—even those whose true meaning has long since dissipated. (See also: fourth-season episode “Christopher” and the family’s fierce protection of Columbus Day. Or better yet, don’t.) In the sixth-season episode “The Ride,” everyone involved in celebrating the Feast Of St. Elzéar treats it with a sense of obligation and self-involvement, belying the piety and charity preached by its namesake. The priest raises the parish fee, arbitrarily withholding the use of a statue’s gold hat after Paulie refuses to pay. The community celebrates with a street festival full of midway games and janky rides, including one that leaves several injured, due to negligent maintenance. And when the actual day of the Feast arrives, the statue is greeted by people yelling out selfish requests for blessings and quibbling over his hat. As the episode illustrates, so much of life is about just going through the motions and keeping up traditions, no matter whether they serve an actual purpose any longer. But even when those traditions break down, someone just patches them up and keeps them going. That’s the ride.
Mindy Kaling penned this script about Diwali, a holiday her character Kelly grew up with, as a Hindu, but which her co-workers have no idea about. Michael Scott refers to it as “essentially Hindu Halloween.” The episode takes the workers of Dunder-Mifflin to a Diwali party and an Indian community center, where Kelly introduces Ryan as her fiancé and Angela stands guard over their shoes because she’s convinced one of the participants will steal them. The new situation requires the office workers to go with the flow—something most of them are incredibly bad at. Michael, for instance, spits out his samosa, because he thought it was supposed to be a s’more, then he proposes to his girlfriend of just a few days in front of everyone. Kaling’s script neatly turns the story of strangers in a strange land on its head, making the Dunder-Mifflin employees the odd ones out. “Diwali” is a cathartic, funny episode that harks back to the series’ finest half-hours.
As with Leap Day, a handful of TV writers have had fun with the ways human beings make time seem more malleable than it actually is. In “Time Tunnel,” the residents of Wellsville, New Jersey, do their level best to embrace the fact that they get one whole hour back every fall and use that hour to right something that went wrong or do something they regret not having done in the year to date. For Big Pete, that means trying to fix his friendship with Ellen, his best friend and sometime love interest whose relationship with him has been damaged by an unfortunate date Big Pete asked her on. Pete & Pete could be surprisingly, swooningly romantic when it wanted to be, and the best thing about “Time Tunnel” isn’t just that it offers up everyday time travel but that it makes the most romantic thing in the world seem to be finding a best friend who really gets you.
Leave it to The Wire to handle Election Day with realistic scope. The episode begins in church the Sunday before the election, with preachers encouraging civic participation and candidates smiling for publicity. The last few days in the campaign are frantic for mayoral candidate Tommy Carcetti and his staff, but the impact of the election on everyone else is strictly practical: It clogs up city infrastructure, specifically with murder detectives assigned to polling places in order to stall their investigation for political ends; it’s a source of quick dough for one schoolboy hired to distribute flyers, and it’s on TV in another’s bedroom before he changes the channel; it has no bearing whatsoever on the incarcerated Wee-Bey or street legend Omar, arrested on a murder warrant he protests. In fact, Election Day is just the next Tuesday at school, where Prez offers Dukie a new hygiene situation, Namond gets put in a pilot program, and Randy gets intimidated into turning witness. Then again, those plots show why this episode stands out: “Margin Of Error” is pivotal for Baltimore, not just Carcetti.
Trust the inexhaustible optimism of Hey Arnold! to produce a Veterans Day episode that aims to teach kids deference toward individuals who served in the military. All Arnold and Gerald think about is a three-day weekend, but Grandpa Phil and Mr. Johanssen have bigger ideas: a trip to the capital to prove the boys’ perceptions wrong. Phil takes advantage of the captive audience on the daylong road trip to tell the story of how his secret mission to dispose of spoiled cans of CHAM (an experimental military food nothing like delicious SPAM) single-handedly won the Battle Of The Bulge and while in the capital finds a monument that proves to Arnold he didn’t exaggerate the story. After Mr. Johansson’s recollections of mishandling his rifle and shooting his colonel in the behind upon arriving in Vietnam, he reveals that he was a file clerk for his tour at the end of the war. Gerald expresses his dejection, believing his father to be a desk jockey instead of a war hero. But a man coincidentally emerges at the war memorial to thank Mr. Johansson for his emergency first-aid, which reveals to Gerald that even one man simply doing his best can perform small acts of heroism.
Nickelodeon originally put Rugrats on hiatus in late spring 1994 after the show reached 65 episodes—hitting the children’s television syndication goal—but held the final episode, a Passover special, until the proper time of year in 1995. But in the intervening time, Nickelodeon realized the hit it had on its hands, and relinquished the unofficial cap, producing more than 100 additional episodes of the show, beginning with “A Rugrats Chanukah,” which aired a year later in December 1996. One of the great strengths of Rugrats was its ability to examine families outside the traditional WASPy sitcom arrangement—be they Chuckie Finster’s remarried father, children of divorced parents, or in the case of the Pickles family, winter holiday celebrations of both Christmas and Chanukah. Tommy’s mother Didi’s parents are Russian Jewish immigrants. Grandma Minka tells the story of “Chanukah,” which depicts the holiday as part of a multigenerational holiday oral tradition. The babies imagine themselves in the Biblical tale of Judah and the Maccabees against the Seleucid Empire, while Grandpa Boris quarrels with a rival from the “Old Country” in the local synagogue’s holiday play.
After surpassing the legal drinking age, New Year’s Eve becomes an occasion to celebrate the things in life that have endured. “New Year’s Eve,” a 1961 episode of The Jack Benny Program, is very much in this tradition. A remake of a 1953 episode, it finds Jack about to face midnight alone. He deserves it after blowing off his friends’ party, instead strutting in top hat and tails and bragging about the “special” date he’s taking out. But viewers feel sorry for him anyway: Benny is the original TV character who tries hard but can’t help being something of a jerk. Benny ends up welcoming the new year with his longtime valet, Rochester (Eddie Anderson, who had worked with Benny for decades), the two sitting side by side on the couch in matching outfits and their feet up on the coffee table. This was a striking image at the time, and a way station in the evolution of African Americans on TV. On the radio, Rochester was more of a stereotype, but he often outwitted Benny on TV and got the better punchlines, even if he was still not a social equal outside of the house. The 1961 version has Dennis Day presenting ethnic stereotypes through song, and the also-interesting 1953 version has the characters shilling for Lucky Strike cigarettes.