The Great British Baking Show was tailor-made for the sort of reality series to do Christmas specials. The "Christmas Special" episode has been part of the TV landscape ever since television became the modern hearth for families. In the U.K., these special Christmas episodes were mostly the province of comedies in the 1970s and 1980s; shows like Last of the Summer Wine and Are You Being Served? would run them every year. That expanded to dramas in the late 1980s when Casualty started doing them too. By the mid-aughts, even shows like Doctor Who and Strictly Come Dancing were putting on holiday specials. Since baking is already a significant part of the holidays, why not the Baking Show too?
And yet, at first, it didn't. During the BBC years, judges Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry did special Masterclass episodes that ran during the holiday season. But since the move to Channel 4, the show has embraced more "proper" holiday challenges, featuring old favorites from seasons past. Unlike the regular editions of the series, Netflix does not bring the episodes over a few days after they air. That's because they are pegged to holidays, and airing "The Great Christmas Baking Show" on Dec. 28 would be awkward, as would bringing over the New Year's edition on Jan. 4. Instead, these special editions arrive 11 months late, with a two-episode The Great British Baking Show: Holidays installment, giving Americans a set of Christmas and New Year's episodes at the top of December.
Up until now, the difference between the holiday years has been small enough that fans might not have noticed. This year was always going to be slightly odd, as the casting change of Sandi Toksvig being replaced by Matt Lucas took place after the holiday episodes. Also, judge Prue Leith was injured and on crutches during filming. (Both these differences feel even odder today than they might have otherwise since this episode debuts the first Friday after the most recent season finale.)
But of course, there's another, larger difference: These episodes are pre-pandemic, from another world, one ignorant of masks, social distancing, and Bake Off Bubbles.
"The Great Christmas Baking Show" episode stayed recent in the casting, with two contestants from Series 8 (Netflix Season 5) and Series 9 (Netflix Season 6). Both Tom Hetherington and Yan Tsou came back from the first season that moved to Channel 4 (and to be listed as a Netflix Original), and Briony Williams and Terry Hartill from the year after. Their challenges were a Cake Pop Signature (24 of them), a Technical challenge to make a Festive Sausage Roll Wreath, and Gingerbread Building showstoppers.
The challenges went much as one would expect. Tom ran out of time on the Signature. (He even admitted to Paul straight out, "I *always* run out of time.") But to his credit, he won the Technical, the only time he's ever done so. Terry's mustache was perfect; his bakes were not. Yan's flavors were lovely but attempted to do too much in the time allotted. That left Briony to take the honor of Star Baker, despite failing at the Technical completely. Consider it a consolation prize for just failing to make the finale in her season.
Most newer fans are probably not aware that the Baking Show originally started as a charity special to raise money via bake-offs for Children In Need. That charity bent disappeared from the main series after the first season, spinning off into The Great Sport Relief Bake Off and The Great Comic Relief Bake Off on the BBC and now The Great Stand Up to Cancer Bake Off on Channel 4. These editions are star-studded, featuring celebrity contestants. They've never crossed over here since Americans aren't as familiar with lesser-known British celebs or U.K. charity trusts. Last year's New Year's Day edition, dubbed "The Great Festive Baking Show," attempted to expand the concept, as the Derry Girls cast invaded the tent.
The sitcom is a hit in the U.K. and on Netflix in the U.S., making it a perfect choice for this experiment. Moreover, they brought all five stars of the series, despite the Holidays episodes traditionally only featuring four bakers for these challenges. That means fans got to see Saoirse-Monica Jackson, Jamie-Lee O'Donnell, Nicola Coughlan, Siobhán McSweeney, and Dylan Llewellyn all attempt to bake for our entertainment. The first challenge was to make large-sized trifles for the Signature, then a blini canape Technical, and finally 3D showstopper cakes decorated to match the decade of their choice.
One might argue this episode hits the Nailed It! attitude that the most recent series aimed for, but in a far more delightful manner. Siobhán argues she's watched tons of episodes and therefore should be an expert, and Dylan says he "bakes" with his mom at home. But Nicola is the only one to claim experience or to have practices ahead of time. In a way, this hurts her because her competence is not buoyed by the soft bigotry of low expectations, unlike Jamie-Lee, who is just happy when things are edible. Saoirse surprisingly hits the flavors and textures, even if her bakes are a right mess, and in the end, she takes the win.
But the real winners are all of us, as this is the funniest episode of the show to ever make it to our shores. These Holidays are a delightful Great British Baking Show duet of episodes that capture the show's magic for the holidays. Even though Sandi keeps saying these are the first bakes of 2020, it's the perfect way to end the year over here.