When a show has been on TV for as long as Saturday Night Live, we start referring to it as "an institution." This process has generally been accelerated with SNL through much of its existence, mostly because it announced its arrival so loudly and proceeded to make itself synonymous with New York City's beating heart. SNL has been "an institution" since I was old enough to stay up late on the weekends and watch it. And what do we look for from our television institutions around this time of year? Holiday-specific entertainment!
SNL is good for 2-3 episodes every December, which gives them plenty of time to air Christmas-themed sketches. Some of them are genre parodies, like the excellent "Christmas Candle" song:
Or the time they got Darlene Love onboard to help deliver a pitch-perfect recreation of the old '60s stop-motion animated specials on "Christmastime for the Jews":
And then of course one of the great Christmas traditions of all, It's a Wonderful Life, got an unforgettably dark alternative ending, featuring Dana Carvey's uncanny Jimmy Stewart impersonation:
But over the years, it's been rather heartwarming to see that Saturday Night Live has developed Christmastime traditions of its own. The final show of the year before the holiday break has pretty consistently become a kind of friends-and-family show, with old favorites picked to host (recent years have seen Martin Short, Paul McCartney, Jimmy Fallon, and a co-hosting appearance by Tina Fey and Amy Poehler). This year, it's the highly anticipated return of Eddie Murphy. What's more, the last show before Christmas often features cameos from former cast member and old favorites. Which isn't exactly rare these days, but it still manages to feel celebratory.
This is all in keeping with SNL's earlier holiday traditions, which stretch back at least as far as Jon Lovitz as the irrepressible Hannukah Harry:
As you attempt to dislodge the Hannukah Harry theme song from your brain, reflect on the fact that most of SNL's holiday traditions over the years have been song-related. Like the Jimmy Fallon/Horatio Sanz/Chris Kattan/Tracy Morgan "I Wish It Was Christmas Today" song, which might be the most sincere (yet silly) act of childlike delight that the show has ever produced.
"I Wish It Was Christmas Today" itself was a spiritual successor of sorts to Frankenstein (Phil Hartman), Tarzan (Kevin Nealon), and Tonto (Jon Lovitz) monosyllabically grunting their way through "Deck the Halls."
And of course, who could forget SNL's favorite son pouring one out for Jewish people all over the world with "The Hanukkah Song," which went on to become a sensation and helped launch Sandler's post-SNL career, at least more than an Opera Man movie ever could have.
Happy Holidays, Saturday Night Live. Thanks for all the weird moments of joy.
A Saturday Night Live Christmas Special airs on NBC December 16 at 9:00 PM ET.
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Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.