“This could be the miracle that saves the Simpsons' Christmas. If TV has taught me anything, it's that miracles always happen to poor kids at Christmas. It happened to Tiny Tim, it happened to Charlie Brown, it happened to the Smurfs, and it's going to happen to us!”
"Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire" or the The Simpsons Christmas Special was the first full-length episode of The Simpsons. However, it was originally intended to be the eighth episode of Season 1, but technical difficulties caused the episode order and air date to change, and the first episode produced, Some Enchanted Evening, aired as the season 1 finale. It originally aired on December 17, 1989. It was written by Mimi Pond and directed by David Silverman.
It's a not-so-merry Christmas for the Simpsons, when Mr. Burns decides to cut the Christmas Bonuses and Marge has to spend the family's Christmas savings to erase a tattoo Bart thought would make a great Christmas present. In order to hide the fact that he did not get the bonus, Homer takes a second job as a mall Santa.
The episode begins with a direct title reading “The Simpsons Christmas Special” upon a snowy night sky – a unique opening, as the episode is devoid of the infamous opening sequence. We then fade to Homer hastily driving the Family Sedan with Marge and Maggie through a snow covered street. They are late for Bart and Lisa's Christmas pageant at Springfield Elementary School. After crashing into a pile of snow at the front of Springfield Elementary School (park at the front), Homer and Marge stumble through a full audience to find their seats; everyone looks on stage at the pageant that has already begun. Homer converses with some of the other men at the pageant, expressing his unhappiness of attending. Homer and Marge sit down just in time to see Principal Skinner introduce the second grade. The children do a presentation of different Santa Clauses from around the world – including an early version of Ralph Wiggum as Hotei Oshō. Dewey Largo introduces Lisa. She then steals the show as Tawanga, the Santa Claus of the South Seas. Lisa’s dance causes awe throughout the crowd, as she performs a dangerous dance with fire performing tricks such as throwing it around herself – Lisa also wears see-through clothing, effectively ‘revealing' Lisa completely, although this is presumably unintended to be seen as nudity. Cut to Skinner introducing the fourth grade singing a ‘melody', or medley of Christmas carols. As they all sing Jingle Bells, Bart can be heard singing in a much louder and unpleasant voice to the lyrics of a rude parody, “Jingle Bells, Batman smells, Robin laid an egg...” Bart is yanked from the performance. The pageant continues, as a bored Homer wonders aloud how long the pageant will last.
Afterwards, at the Simpson family home, Marge writes a letter for the Simpsons family Christmas cards, as Homer gets out Christmas decorations, and Bart and Lisa write their Christmas wish lists. In the letter, Marge describes family life. As she reads the letter, Marge's narration describes her writing, the camera pans around to the different family members as she mentions their names and stories. Marge soon stops writing, due to Homer's grumpy demeanor. Bart and Lisa show Marge their wish lists; Marge is upset when Lisa once again asks for a pony for Christmas (6 times on the list), but Lisa remains optimistic of her present request. Bart asks for a tattoo, causing a minor argument amongst Homer, Marge and Bart. They are interrupted by a phone call; Homer answers to a rude Patty who refuses to speak with him, requesting Marge; a grumbling Homer hands the phone over to Marge and the two sisters discuss their plans Christmas Eve – the sisters also find time to criticize Marge's choice in husband. Cut to Homer, who is outside adding the finishing touches to the Christmas lights on the roof, while the three children watch from the sidewalk. After Homer falls from the roof, he calls out to Marge plug in the lights. Only a few of the lights actually light up, and Homer admires his handy work, while the kids are less than impressed. Ned Flanders is also outside, and ready to plug in his lights for the first time, he calls out to Homer and tells him to admire his superiority. As he plugs the lights in, Flanders' entire house lights up, including a talking Santa Claus on the roof. The lights illuminate everyone's face and much to Homer's dismay; his kids are very impressed at Ned's display of lights, yet Homer still manages to criticize Ned's work.
At breakfast the next morning, Marge tells the kids to grab their money so they can go Christmas shopping at the Springfield Mall. As the excited kids run off to get their money, Homer asks Marge where she has been keeping the Christmas savings. She makes him turn around and she pulls a jar out of her hair. It is a very large jar full of money, impressing Homer. Later at the mall, Marge, Lisa and Maggie look at gifts together; Bart is off by himself, and comes across The Happy Sailor Tattoo Parlor. In the window, he sees a tattoo of a heart with the word “mother” written across it. He daydreams that Marge will have a positive reaction to him getting a tattoo, so he runs inside the parlor, lies to the gullible tattoo artist – Mervin Monroe – about his age, and hops into the chair. Meanwhile, at the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant, Mr. Burns, the plant's owner and rightful boss, announces over the loudspeaker that there will not be any Christmas bonuses this year for unskilled workers; this includes Homer. Homer sighs as he remembers they still have the big jar full of money for Christmas presents. Back at the mall, Marge hears Bart's yells of pain coming from inside the tattoo parlor and she quickly runs inside to see Bart with the heart tattoo halfway finished on his arm. She quickly pulls him out of the chair and takes him to Dr. Zitsofsky's Dermatology Clinic. The tattoo removal is expensive and requires a full cash payment up front. Marge decides to use all the Christmas money for Bart's tattoo removal; although unhappy, she assumes Homer's Christmas Bonus will cover future costs. Bart then undergoes a “James Bond” operation. Back at home, Lisa tells Homer what has happened and Homer freaks out. Marge tells him to calm down, and that they will just have to stretch his Christmas bonus further for the year. Homer fakes relief when Marge mentions his bonus; he tells everyone that this will be the best Christmas ever and steps outside for a walk, choosing to conceal the truth. Once outside he looks up at his poorly decorated house and then at Flanders' masterpiece. A depressed Homer hangs his head in despair on the sidewalk.
That night in bed, Marge senses something is amiss with Homer and asks if there is something wrong. Homer almost tells her the truth about his Christmas bonus, but quickly backpedals and instead offers to do the Christmas shopping so she doesn't have to. Marge agrees and is content with Homer's answer; the two sleep. The next day Homer does the Christmas shopping alone at Circus of Values. He purchases pantyhose for Marge, pads of paper for Bart and a squeaky chew toy for Maggie – Lisa's present isn't revealed. While purchasing such dismal presents, Homer uses empty optimism to assure his own self. On his way out the door with his bag of presents, Homer accidentally crashes into Ned and Todd, while he carries an armful of fancily wrapped packages. All the presents are spilled onto the ground, and as Homer picks the few he purchased and sees how many Ned bought, Ned attempts to sort the presents, unintentionally gloating his wealth. At Moe's Tavern, Homer drinks a beer alone, when a cheerful Barney walks in wearing a Santa Claus suit. Barney explains that he is in a good mood because he has extra money from working a part time job acting as Santa Claus at the mall. Homer suddenly has an idea. Cut to the personnel office in the mall, as Homer fills out an application and is interviewed to be a mall Santa. After the finishes reviewing Homer's application, as well as interviewing him, the personnel director welcomes Homer aboard and sends him to mall Santa training. A montage of Homer enduring Santa training ensues – this includes the Hypnotist as the teacher.
Homer finally makes it home late at night and a worried Marge wants to know where he has been. Homer assures the insignificance of his tardiness and heads upstairs, but Marge tells him they have guests, Patty and Selma. As Homer talks to Patty and Selma, they comment on the fact that the Simpsons don't have a Christmas tree up yet. Homer lies and tells them he was about to leave, and he angrily hurries out the door. In the car, Homer drives past several Christmas tree lots; gradually the trees become cheaper from the earlier expensive ones. Eventually he stops at a private Christmas Tree Farm and uses a chain saw to steal a nice Christmas tree for the family. Homer is soon met with retaliation, the farm owner fires his gun upon Homer, and has two hounds pursue. However, Homer escapes relatively easily. Back at home, Homer stands up the tree, and everyone is impressed except for Patty and Selma. On Christmas Eve at the mall, Homer works as Santa Claus, while children wait in line to sit on his lap, one being a very greedy child. From a distance, Bart, Milhouse and Lewis watch the children line-up to sit on Santa's lap, they comment on the gullibility of the children. Milhouse dares Bart to yank off Santa's beard and Bart agrees. Bart jumps in line and finally gets his turn on Santa's lap. Not knowing that Santa is really Homer, Bart yanks off his beard. Bart is shocked at what he uncovers, and an angry Homer escorts Bart inside Santa's workshop to speak with him in private, leaving Alfie to cover for him. Homer explains the situation to Bart, who understands and feels bad for yanking off Homer's beard.
At the end of Homer's shift, Bart goes with Homer as he picks up his check. Homer is surprised to learn that he has only made 13 dollars. When he questions the cashier, she explains the majority of his check went to pay for the Santa suit, social security, etc. While a depressed Homer sits down to figure out what to do with the 13 dollars, an excited Barney tells Homer that he is going to the Springfield Downs to place a bet with his earnings. He invites Homer to come along with him, ensuring a win on the dog Whirlwind, Homer is reluctant but Bart convinces him to go, citing that this might be their only chance to save the Simpson family Christmas.
Back at the Simpson home everyone including Patty, Selma and Abe Simpson, wait for Homer and Bart to come home while watching The Happy Little Elves. Cut to the dog track, where Barney insists Homer bet on Whirlwind. After seeing what Whirlwind looks like, Homer is reluctant to bet on him. Just then an announcement plays over the P.A. system, a dog named Santa's Little Helper will be replacing Sir Galahad in the fourth race. Homer senses that the announcement is an omen, and decides to bet on him even though Bart says not to, and despite the fact that the odds are 99 to 1. Homer puts down all 13 dollars on Santa's Little Helper. Meanwhile, at home, Patty and Selma talk bad about Homer, while everyone waits for him and Bart. Lisa then explains to Patty how her bad mouthing will damage herself, confusing Patty. Back at the track, Homer and Bart anxiously await the running of the fourth race. As the race begins Homer and Bart cheer on Santa's Little Helper, but Whirlwind, Barney's pick, is out to an early lead with Santa's Little Helper bringing up the rear. Homer and Bart quickly realize their chances at winning any money are dashed, as Santa's Little Helper doesn't even finish the race.
Cut to Homer and Bart, out in the parking lot of the dog track, looking for discarded betting slips hoping to find that someone has thrown away a winner. Barney drives by in a convertible with a woman named Daria in the passenger seat, and gloats to Bart and Homer about his pick for the race: Whirlwind. A dejected Bart and Homer head back to their car, when off in the distance they see a racing dog owner yelling and chasing off Santa's Little Helper for losing once again. Santa's Little Helper jumps up into Homer's arms. Bart asks Homer if they can keep the dog. Homer, reluctant at first, quickly warms up to the dog and decides to take him home. Cut back to the Simpson home, where everyone still awaits Bart and Homer's return. Suddenly, a sad looking Homer enters in and starts to confess to everyone about the fact that he didn't receive his Christmas Bonus, and apologizes for the lack of presents; when Bart interrupts, Santa's Little Helper runs into the room barking. Everyone ignores Homer and falls in love with the dog, and Homer realizes that in the end he has done a good job providing gifts at Christmas for the Simpson Family. In then roll the credits from a photo of the happy family.
Fox was very nervous about the show because they were unsure if they could sustain the audience's attention for the duration of the episode. In the end, they gambled by asking FOX for 13 full-length episodes. The series was originally planned to premiere in the fall of 1989, but due to major problems with the animation of "Some Enchanted Evening" (the first Simpsons episode produced), the series instead began on December 17, 1989 with this episode. "Some Enchanted Evening" instead aired as the season finale.
The episode, being the first to air, lacked the now famous opening sequence which was later added in the second episode when Groening thought of the idea of a longer opening sequence resulting in less animation.
The "Santas of many lands" portion of the Christmas pageant is based on Matt Groening's experience in the second grade when he did a report on Christmas in Russia. Groening also used that reference in his strip "Life in Hell" when he spoofed himself as a young man, being told that it is too bad his grandmother is from Russia, because Christmas is against the law there. Also, Matt Groening claims that this episode has been incorrectly credited with creating the "alternate version" of Jingle Bells.
The episode was written by Mimi Pond. David Silverman directed this episode, although Rich Moore storyboarded it and designed Flanders. Several of the scenes were laid out by Eric Stefani, brother of Gwen Stefani. In this episode, Barney had yellow hair which was the same color as his skin, but that was later dropped because of the belief that only the Simpson family should have such hair. There are also many other major differences in appearances throughout the episode, including Moe, Moe's Tavern and an early Ralph Wiggum.
The episode was nominated for two Emmy Awards in 1990: "Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Animated Program (For Programming less than One Hour)" and "Outstanding Editing for a Miniseries or Special." Because "Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire" is considered to be a separate special, The Simpsons was nominated twice in the Animated Program category; the episode would lose to fellow The Simpsons episode "Life on the Fast Lane".
Since airing, Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire has received positive criticism. The authors of "I Can't Believe It's a Bigger and Better Updated Unofficial Simpsons Guide" commented positively of the episode: "pretty standard early fare, with the series not quite hitting its stride". "The Realism of the first season is much apparent, with only the laser used to remove Bart's tattoo hinting at what the series will become."
In its original broadcast, the episode finished 13th in the week of December 11–17, 1989. It finished with a Nielsen rating of 14.5, viewed by approximately 13.4 million homes.