Christmas TV episodes are a living thing, or a moving target, depending on your point of view. New ones are always airing, and your own perspective on the holiday changes, too.
So a personal Top 10 feels ephemeral. Recently revisiting those I chose a few years back for my book "Christmas on Television," I found myself less enchanted with several, more enamored of others, and wondering whether newer shows were ready to join the best-ever list.
Or whether a best-ever list made sense at all, considering how some folks love sentiment while others prefer seasonal subversion, and those preferences don't always intersect.
In other words, here's my Top 10 Christmas episodes list, as of today, starting with subversion and moving into sentiment. Unless, of course, my mood shifts while I'm writing. (All are available on DVD, with other viewing options noted below.)
1. The Jack Benny Program (1960, CBS) This one has topped my list since the first time I saw it. The legendary pennypincher goes Christmas shopping in a department store and slowly, inevitably drives a counter clerk (played by cartoon voice king Mel Blanc) quite palpably insane. The ending is so shocking (but hilarious!), sitcoms today couldn't get away with it.
2. Married ... With Children (1987/1989, Fox) It's a tie! The first holiday episode of this anti-"Cosby Show" had Santa land (hard) in the Bundys' backyard, prompting a Christmas coroner's visit. In the next one, scream-bloody-murder comic Sam Kinison played Al's guardian angel, "It's a Wonderful Life"-style, showing what the family's life would like without their sad-sack husband/dad -- happy! ("It's a Bundyful Life" airs Sunday 5-6 a.m. on TBS, also Dec. 24 at 10 p.m. on Antenna TV.)
3. Green Acres (1966, CBS) Eddie Albert's exiled city guy seeks an old-fashioned Christmas, while his rustic neighbors all want modern gear like fake trees with sap squirters -- Arnold the Pig loves them. Mindbendingly surreal. (Watch on Hulu.com.)
4. Becker (2000, CBS) Ted Danson's holiday hater throws out his back while shopping and lives his worst nightmare laid out in a syrupy store display. (Check Reelz channel listings for "Dr. Angry Head.")
6. Northern Exposure (1991, CBS) The Alaska town's raven pageant brings together Christians, Jews and animists. Emmy winner for drama writing.
8. The West Wing (1999, NBC) Richard Schiff's Toby is moved to action when he learns a homeless Vietnam vet died wearing a coat he'd donated to Goodwill. Emmy winner for drama writing.
9. Little House on the Prairie (1974, NBC) Ingalls family members make "Gift of the Magi" sacrifices to buy each other frontier Christmas gifts. (Watch Dec. 17 at 2 p.m. on hard-to-find channel INSP.)
10. All in the Family (1977, CBS) Christmas on this landmark controversy-com took on topical issues like job loss, draft dodging, divorce and even losing touch with God. That last one may have been the best, with atheist Mike helping despondent Edith find her faith again. (Eight episodes air Dec. 24-25 on Antenna TV with "Edith's Crisis of Faith" Christmas night at 8-9 p.m.)