Throughout December, most sitcoms feature lighthearted holiday episodes that close out the first half of the season on a high note. The most memorable Christmas episodes are, however, those that take a sharp left turn into some very dark places.
In 1977, the groundbreaking "All in the Family" featured a two-part episode entitled "Edith's Crisis of Faith." Jean Stapleton is at her all-time best here as Edith Bunker, the supposedly ditzy Queens housewife who finds herself questioning God after the brutal death of a dear friend, the female impersonator Beverly LaSalle (Lori Shannon). On Christmas Eve, Edith's faith is so shaken that she even refuses to attend services.
Stapleton shines throughout this holiday two-parter, especially as she interacts with Beverly. It's hard not to tear up when Edith presents Beverly with a scrapbook of all his appearances, a gift that shows how truly goodhearted Edith is. The Beverly LaSalle character was an infrequent guest star and his brave, but untimely, death fit the tone of the series.
A few years earlier, Stapleton was equally brilliant in "Edith's Christmas Story," an episode that finds Edith dealing with a lump in her breast. In typical Edith fashion, she busies herself with holiday preparations until the truth comes out. In one of the most touching moments, Edith's friend Irene tells her that she truly understands the terror that accompanies breast cancer.
In the early seasons, when "Happy Days" was still finding its footing, Henry Winkler added another dimension to his Fonzie character on the "Guess Who's Coming to Christmas" episode. With his usual bravado, Fonzie claims to have big plans for the holidays, but Richie finds out that his friend actually is dining alone on sandwiches and canned ravioli. This holiday episode brought the Richie and Fonzie relationship into sharper focus.
Mike Farrell turned in an award-worthy performance during the "Death Takes a Holiday" episode of "M*A*S*H". Refusing to let a wounded soldier die on Christmas, Farrell, as BJ Hunnicutt fights to keep the soldier alive until after Midnight. Hawkeye and Margaret help and though the soldier ultimately loses his life, everyone agrees to falsify the time of death in order not to permanently mar the holiday for his family. Farrell received an Emmy nod for writing this holiday classic.
The secondary plot of "Death Takes a Holiday" also lets David Ogden Stiers shine as Charles Emerson Winchester, a stuffy New England surgeon forced into doing meatball surgery in Korea. Winchester follows his family tradition by leaving a box of expensive sweets anonymously at the local orphanage, but the candy returns to the M*A*S*H 4077th in an unexpected and eye-opening way.
Arguably, "The Brady Bunch" really gelled in its first season thanks to "The Voice of Christmas" episode. When Carol Brady loses her voice during the holiday season, it looks as if she won't be able to sing during Christmas services. Cindy then asks a department store Santa to bring her mother's voice back, an unselfish wish that shocks the man so much that he agrees.