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Best Holiday TV Specials

Holiday TV specials are like a warm mug of cocoa with marshmallows: sweet, comforting, and best enjoyed with those you love. We've rounded up this season's can't-miss shows to keep your family entertained from Halloween ("The Simpsons Treehouse of Horror") to Thanksgiving ("Jim Henson's Turkey Hollow") all the way through the holidays ("Doctor Who Christmas Special"). Whether you like 'em heartwarming, quirky, funny, or futuristic, you'll find traditional faves, worthy underdogs, and a few new additions to the classic holiday-special canon. Though not all these shows feature families (or even humans!), they embody the spirit of togetherness, warmth, and tradition. (Check your local listings to confirm show dates and times.)

Halloween

"Brooklyn Nine-Nine," "Halloween III," age 14+, Oct. 25 on Fox at 8:30 p.m.
Captain Holt (Andre Braugher) and Jake (Andy Samberg) make yet another Halloween bet, but this year, they're dragging the rest of the squad into their dispute.

"Freaks and Geeks," "Tricks and Treats," age 14+, streaming on Netflix
Whether you're a freak teen, a geek tween, or a hapless parent, this cult classic's Halloween episode has something for you. Lindsay has to decide whether to smash pumpkins with her new friends or hand out candy with her totally square mom, while the geeks grapple with the age-old question, how old is too old for trick-or-treating?

"Roseanne," Halloween episodes, age 13+, streaming on Netflix
The Conner family's Halloween traditions include some extreme (and extremely hilarious) pranks on each other; teens will be torn between laughing and screaming as family members try to outdo each other in the scare department.

"The Simpsons," "Treehouse of Horror" marathon, age 12+, Oct. 25 on FXX from 4 to 8 p.m.; streaming on Amazon; this year's episode Oct. 25 on Fox at 8 p.m.
There are now 26 (can you believe it?) spooky Simpsons Halloween episodes, but we still love the original, with James Earl Jones narrating Poe's "The Raven," who happens to look a lot like Bart. In this year's episode, "Treehouse of Horror XXVI" (airing at 8 p.m. after a four-hour marathon), Sideshow Bob kills, then reanimates Bart, while the rest of the family deals with mutant powers.

"Toy Story of Terror!," age 6+, Oct. 20 on ABC at 8:30 p.m.
Watching brave cowgirl Jessie face her fears may help young ones process their own feelings about the sometimes too-scary Halloween season. Also, don't miss the gang's holiday-themed adventure, "Toy Story That Time Forgot."

Thanksgiving

"Friends," Thanksgiving episodes, age 14+, streaming on Netflix
Each season of Friends contains a classic Thanksgiving episode, often highlighting time spent with good (you guessed it) friends and family. Start with season five's "The One with All the Thanksgivings" to see Joey's iconic turkey-on-the-head scare.

"Jim Henson's Turkey Hollow," age 8+, Nov. 21 on Lifetime at 8 p.m.
This rediscovered Henson script stars Mary Steenburgen as a kooky aunt who helps her family try to find the Howling Hoodoo, a mysterious Bigfoot-like creature. Narrated by actor and rapper Ludacris, this family-friendly special features puppets that are more Fraggle than Muppet and has a gentle Emmet Otter-style vibe.

Holidays

"Doctor Who," Christmas special, age 10+, Dec. 25 on BBC America (check local listings)
Rumor has it that the 11th Whovian holiday special will have the Doctor's wife, fellow doctor and time-traveler River Song (ER's Alex Kingston), meeting her husband for the first time in his current incarnation (Peter Capaldi plays the quippy time lord).

"Frosty the Snowman," age 3+, Nov. 28 on CBS at 9 p.m.
Watch Frosty, a roly-poly goofball with a heart of gold, strike up a friendship with cute kid Karen as he tries to get to the North Pole in this 1960s classic.

"How the Grinch Stole Christmas," age 4+, Dec. 5 on ABC Family at 8 p.m.
Did you know your heart grows three sizes every time you watch this special? It's nearly impossible not to be moved by the green antihero's redemption tale. Just try watching him serve that first slice of roast beast to his trusty dog without a grin on your face.

"I Love Lucy," Christmas special, age 6+, Dec. 7 on CBS at 8 p.m.
Lucy gets up to her standard shenanigans in this set of holiday episodes. The usual lineup of unwitting participants includes neighbors Fred and Ethel and Lucy's loving but frustrated hubby, Ricky. Hijinks will ensue.

"It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown," "A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving," "A Charlie Brown Christmas," age 4+, all on ABC at 8 p.m., dates below:

  • Great Pumpkin: Oct. 20 and Oct. 29
  • Thanksgiving: Nov. 26
  • It's Your 50th Christmas, Charlie Brown: Nov. 30
  • A Charlie Brown Christmas: Dec. 2

What does this trilogy of holiday specials have in common? Circumstances cause the Peanuts gang to create their own traditions, and while they may not always find total success (does Charlie Brown ever get to kick that football?), friendship always saves the day. Bonus: Kristen Bell hosts an extra-special special about the beloved Christmas special this year.

"Merry Madagascar," age 6+, Nov. 28 on CW at 9:30 p.m.
Wild-animal favorites Alex, Marty, and Melman made it to Madagascar; now they want to get back to New York. The best vehicle for the job? Santa's sleigh, of course.

"Prep & Landing" and "Prep & Landing Naughty vs. Nice," age 5+, Nov. 28 on ABC at 8 p.m. and 8:30 p.m.
An elite organization of elves makes sure each and every home is ready for Santa. It's serious business for Wayne, who after 227 years is ready for a promotion in this flight-themed buddy comedy. Sequel "Naughty vs. Nice" finds Wayne and his crew dealing with a hacker trying to program their way onto the nice list.

"Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," age 3+, Dec. 9 on CBS at 8 p.m.
Rudolph and his misfit crew learn what it means to stay true to themselves in the old-school stop-motion special. Finding it a hard sell? Kids who love Will Ferrell in Elf will be tickled to find Buddy's origins in this retro, Rankin/Bass Productions world.

"Saturday Night Live," Christmas special, age 14+, Dec. 3 on NBC at 9 p.m.
No one skewers the holidays like SNL. Expect classic characters: Get Pete Schweddy's (Alex Baldwin) favorite recipe, see what Stefon has up his sleeve for Christmas activities, and listen to Adam Sandler's gem "The Hanukkah Song."

"Toy Story That Time Forgot," age 4+, Dec. 2 on ABC at 8:30 p.m.
Set days after Christmas, this action-packed treat offers plenty of positive messages about friendship, loyalty, and being true to yourself as Woody and the gang go face-to-face with a colony of battle-ready dinosaurs.

"A Very Murray Christmas," age 15+, streaming on Netflix Dec. 4
Fans of satirical Christmas classic Scrooged will be happy to see Bill Murray back in the holiday spirit in this Netflix special. With rumored guests that include George Clooney, Miley Cyrus, and the Rockettes, the quirk factor here will be through the roof, which should please folks who like to keep their holidays schmaltz-free.

"Wild Kratts," "Creature Christmas," age 6+, Nov. 25 on PBS (check local listings)
The friendly, knowledgeable, and just plain fun Kratt brothers are back with their favorite critter buddies to celebrate the holidays, animal-style.

"Yes, Virginia," age 4+, Nov. 28 on CBS at 9:30 p.m.; streaming on Amazon
A stellar voice cast (Neil Patrick Harris, Alfred Molina) and charming CGI animation give curious Virginia's sweet tale a fresh life.

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