“Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire” holds a very special place in my heart in terms of Simpsons episodes. It’s not only the first episode of the series, but also the very first one I ever watched at the impressionable age of two or three. This was before The Simpsons got its reputation for not being a particularly family-friendly show, but early enough that it was the only episode I saw in full for years due to parental interference. Then they released the seasons annually on DVD and my cousin got me into it after he started collecting them. I love the show as much as anyone else does (the first ten or so seasons were great, then it’s a long slow trip downhill). The Simpsons have done quite a lot of Christmas episodes in their nearly 30 season run, but how does their first one hold up? Let’s look.
Homer, Marge and Maggie are running late to Bart and Lisa’s Christmas pageant, though they manage to make it in time to see their respective grades perform. Bart gets yanked out of the choir for singing Jingle Bells Batman Smells, and Lisa does some fire dancing as part of her presentation of Santa Clauses from around the world and OH MY GOD SHE HAS NOTHING ON UNDER HER SKIRT!!!
Later as Homer untangles the Christmas lights, Marge writes an expository holiday letter for the family – Grandpa’s still alive and kicking, but Lisa’s cat Snowball kicked the bucket and was replaced with the ironically black Snowball II. Lisa’s been getting straight A’s, Maggie’s learning to walk, and Bart…
…well, we all love Bart.
Marge gathers the kids’ letters to Santa, though Bart is skeptical about his existence (“There’s only one fat guy who delivers presents and his name ain’t Santa.”) Unfortunately they have some rather impossible requests – for the third year in a row Lisa wants a pony, and Bart wants a tattoo.
The family goes outside to turn on the lights, but Homer has as much getting them to work as Clark Griswold. They are literally outshone by their next door neighbor Ned Flanders and his son Todd (Maude and Rod are conspicuously absent).
The next day, Marge takes the kids shopping. Bart wanders off to a tattoo parlor advertising a “Mother” tattoo as the best gift. Thinking it would be a great present for his mom and himself, Bart convinces the not very keen tattoo artist to give him one. Marge catches him halfway through and in deep pain, and is forced to use the money reserved for presents to get it removed with a laser. She tells the kids not to worry as they still have their father’s Christmas bonus to lean on. Unfortunately, Mr. Burns announces that he’s cancelling the Christmas bonus that year (to add insult to injury, he’s not even giving them a jelly of the month club membership! The nerve!)
Homer is unable to break the news to Marge when he learns what happened and instead tells her that he’s going to be doing the shopping himself that year. After an embarrassing run-in with the Flanders at the grocery store, Homer drowns his sorrows at Moe’s Tavern. His drunken friend Barney stumbles in wearing a Santa suit and buys everyone a drink. He tells Homer he got a cushy job down at the mall playing Santa Claus which inspires him to try it as well.
Homer goes through rigorous Santa training and barely gets by, though he does fairly well when out on the floor. But Bart and his friends happen to be hanging around when he’s on duty. Milhouse dares Bart to sit on his lap and yank his beard off.
Homer pulls Bart aside and tells him the truth about his bonus. Bart is in awe that his father would sink to this level to make sure his family is happy this Christmas. On Christmas Eve Homer and Bart pick up the paycheck, but after all the deductibles it comes down to thirteen dollars. Barney suggests they take their checks and go to the greyhound racing track since he has a hot tip on who’s set to win, but Homer is against it. It’s up to Bart to convince him with the perfect rousing inspirational speech:
Bart: Come on Dad, this could be the miracle that saves the Simpson’s Christmas! If tv has taught me anything, it’s that miracles always happen to poor kids on Christmas. It happened to Tiny Tim, it happened to Charlie Brown, it happened to the Smurfs, and it’s gonna happen to us!
Homer: …Well okay, let’s go. Who’s Tiny Tim?
Homer prepares to place his bet, but overhears a last-minute change in the lineup. A dog named “Santa’s Little Helper” is joining the race. Homer takes it as a sign and decides to bet on him against Bart’s better judgement. The race is on, and Barney’s dog wins while Santa’s Little Helper comes in dead last. Bart and Homer scour the parking lot for any lost winning tickets when they find the dog’s owner turning him out on his ear for losing too many races. Santa’s Little Helper runs right into Homer’s arms. Bart asks if they can keep him and Homer almost shoos him away. “He’s a loser! He’s pathetic! He’s…a Simpson.”
Homer returns home hat in hand and confesses that he didn’t get his bonus, but Bart comes in with Santa’s Little Helper declaring that they got a new pet for Christmas. The family immediately falls in love with him and Christmas is saved.
As far as first episodes go, this one is a classic. The fact that it’s a Christmas episode also helps not just in making it stand out from others but in introducing the characters by showing exactly what they would do around the holidays. The opening scene at the school alone reveals exactly who the Simpson family is – Bart is the troublemaker, Lisa’s wise beyond her years, Marge is the doting mother and Homer is the oafish dad. We also get memorable appearances from characters destined to be breakout favorites, including Grandpa, Milhouse, Moe, Barney, half of the Flanders clan and Principal Skinner (and Marge’s shrewish sisters Patty and Selma, but they’re nobody’s favorites). That being said, it’s certainly not without the early installment weirdness you’d expect from such a long-running series. The animation isn’t spectacular, not every joke hits its mark, and some of the characters’ personalities differ vastly from how they are now. Take Homer for example. He’s still an incompetent goof, but nowhere near as dumb or selfish as the Homer we have now. The same goes for Barney and even Moe, who’s considerably nicer than the pathetic jerk we’re familiar with. All this certainly doesn’t hurt the episode in the long run though. It captures the little moments of Christmas like working on the light displays and looking down on the overworked Santas at the crowded mall to a T. The story is tight and manages to perfectly subvert the Christmas miracle cliche Bart so desperately believes in while being genuinely heartwarming. If it weren’t for “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire”, we wouldn’t have The Simpsons at all, and that in and of itself is truly a Christmas miracle.