The holidays and nostalgia go hand in hand, and maybe that’s why some of the best television episodes are the holiday ones. Any show worth watching will have its own celebration, our main characters and their story lines going through the chaos and sentimentality of family, food, and traditions, just like the rest of us. And nothing feels quite like coming home for the holidays than reuniting with the characters we loved growing up.
Start on the Upper East Side for a Thanksgiving with the Waldorfs before things get too dramatic, pass through Stars Hollow for Jackson and Sookie’s deep-fried turkey, and eventually make your way to the Tipton Hotel, where there are a thousand and one ways to do Christmas right. And don’t forget to FaceTime into AFC Richmond’s Christmas party.
Holiday television is serious — you can’t waste your time flipping through channels. We gathered the best of the best of holiday television, from stressful to sentimental.
Gossip Girl, “Blair Waldorf Must Pie” (HBO Max)
You know it’s gonna be good when the omniscient voice of Gossip Girl herself announces a 16-hour hiatus for a day to trade gossip for gourmand. “When the cat’s away, the mice will play,” she says. And she’s right. “Blair Waldorf Must Pie” is the quintessential Thanksgiving episode and the ideal holiday rewatch. There’s loads and loads of backstory — Waldorf family baggage, Dan’s mom and Lily van der Woodsen at the same dinner table, and all the ways life for Blair, Serena, Dan, and Nate was different last Thanksgiving. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t the classic Gossip Girl problems: Serena and Blair get into another fight over boyfriends, and the Upper East Siders make a dramatic trek to Brooklyn.
Gilmore Girls, “A Deep-Fried Korean Thanksgiving” (Netflix)
The downside to being everyone’s sweetheart is that everyone will be expecting you for the holidays. Rory and Lorelai are obviously not getting out of Thanksgiving at Emily and Richard’s house. But, of course, they’ve also said yes to Sookie. And Luke. And Lane. So here we find our beloved mother-daughter duo stuffing themselves at everyone’s parties, eating everything from Mrs. Kim’s Tofurky to Jackson’s deep-fried turkey. And somewhere between all these, Lorelai finds out that Rory has applied to more colleges than just Harvard (which is … the advisable thing to do, Lorelai). Plus, Kirk gets a cat! And names it Kirk! For those not going back to their hometowns for Thanksgiving, going back to Stars Hollow will do.
Ted Lasso, “Carol of the Bells” (Apple TV+)
Ted Lasso put out a Christmas episode in the middle of August, and now’s the perfect time to revisit it. The most feel-good show on TV has an even more feel-good Christmas special. It contributes nothing to the plot of season two except holiday cheer and heartwarming vibes. We’ve got football players singing carols in the town and aloof AFC Richmond huddling up under one roof after realizing the holidays are no time to feel lonely.
Friends, “The One With Phoebe’s Dad” (HBO Max)
It’s the one where Phoebe’s dad isn’t in some distant country abroad, but actually lives in upstate New York, and she goes in search of him along with Joey and Chandler. It’s also the one where Rachel’s holiday party turns into a tropical island because Ross broke the radiator, and their building super can’t be reached due to the holidays. The ideal mix of chaos and sweetness needed for a sitcom Christmas special.
Brooklyn Nine-Nine, “Thanksgiving” (Hulu)
Boyle Bingo: Thanksgiving edition, a precinct-wide bingo card of all of Boyle’s quirky -isms, is in full swing. Jake Peralta is a true Thanksgiving grinch, begrudgingly going to Amy’s dinner, where he has to make a toast about what he’s thankful for. There’s veggie-samosa stuffing and Peking duck, all finished off with Jell-O for Hitchcock, who’s got a colonoscopy scheduled and can’t eat solid foods.
Parenthood, “Happy Thanksgiving” (Hulu)
Parenthood’s Thanksgiving episode does the best job doing what Parenthood does best — earnestness — and for that, we can’t help but be thankful. Haddie sneaks away to see her boyfriend (who was played by Michael B. Jordan, so honestly, her family should have understood). Crosby’s in charge of the turkey carving. The Bravermans’ flag-football game does everything for the episode plot that it needs to, from confessions to coming together.
How I Met Your Mother, “Slapsgiving” (Hulu)
One of the best parts of a sitcom is the introduction of friend-group holiday traditions. Like How I Met Your Mother’s Slapsgiving. It’s Lily and Marshall’s first Thanksgiving after getting married, which Lily wants to be perfect. It’s made a bit awkward by Ted and Robin’s recent breakup and Robin bringing her new older boyfriend. Slapsgiving gets its name from the Slap Bet from a previous episode, where Marshall wins the right to slap Barney five times. Marshall delivers the final slap with ten seconds to go.
Lizzie McGuire, “Here Comes Aaron Carter” (Disney +)
It is a story directly out of fanfiction: Lizzie’s favorite heartthrob pop star comes to her hometown to shoot a music video, and not only does she end up in it, but she also gets a kiss on the cheek? If stan Twitter existed back then, she’d have to immediately go private. On top of everything, the Aaron Carter–Hilary Duff era was a vibrant part of American history. I can hear the words “Merry Christmas, Lizzie McGuire” as if it happened yesterday.
The Suite Life of Zack and Cody, “Christmas at the Tipton” (Disney+)
Who can forget the iconic episode where Maddie rigs the Tipton Hotel’s Secret Santa exchange to guarantee she gets a gift from her designated Rich Friend, hotel heiress London Tipton, only for London to come up with a meaningful, badly homemade gift? Zack and Cody’s dad is back in town these days, and in a spark of holiday spirit, Cody tries to get him and his mom back together. Oh, and then the elevator breaks down from the winter storm outside, and the twins are stuck inside with a pregnant woman who gives birth. A real-life nativity scene at the Tipton.