The holiday most often associated with The Simpsons is clearly Halloween, thanks to the annual presence from the Treehouse of Horror series. Which is why I find it funny that the show’s very first episode was a Christmas special (though it should be noted, it was the 8th episode by production order). I can’t think of another long-running show that lead-off with a Christmas special. South Park famously originated as a Christmas short, but that wasn’t its first true episode. “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire” also aired a full month before the show’s second episode so that it could air before Christmas. It was also not written by Matt Groening, or any of the other individuals most associated with the show, but cartoonist Mimi Pond. It was also her only contribution to the show and the only episode from the show to air in the 1980s.
“Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire” succeeds as both a Christmas special and as an introduction for the series. Homer is depicted as a screw-up who wants to give his family a good Christmas, but his miserly boss has decided not to give out bonuses this year. When Marge has to use what little savings they have to get a tattoo removed off of their son, Homer looks to get a second job to pay for Christmas. He doesn’t tell his family and decides to take a part-time job as a mall Santa. This includes a humorous sequence of Homer going through Santa training, learning how to laugh and what to say to bad kids who sit on his lap. His plan blows up in his face though when he receives a meager payout on Christmas Eve. Defeated, he and Bart decide to accompany fellow Santa Barney Gumble to the dog track and wager their bucks on a long-shot, who Homer feels compelled to bet on because of his name: Santa’s Little Helper. The dog, of course, loses but when his owner kicks him to the curb the Simpsons gain a new pet, and a worthy Christmas present.
It’s a cute story and a good window into what the show is all about when it’s at its best. The Simpsons don’t always catch the best breaks, through some of their own doing, but they find a way to make it work. They’re basically a happy family that cares about one another, unlike a certain other animated TV family. As viewers, we like them, even though we laugh at them. There’s enough pity in Homer’s plight to get a reaction, but not so much that the episode becomes a depressing slog.
“Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire” is still the best Christmas special produced by the long-running series and can be found on the season one box set. It’s also been released on DVD as part of a holiday collection of episodes and is guaranteed to air this season on FXX, along with the other Christmas specials. Just keep an eye out for it if you wish to catch it that way.