In the episode, Homer Simpson discovers that he will not be getting a Christmas bonus and thus his family has no money to buy Christmas presents after they had to waste money on getting his son Bart's tattoo removed. He decides to keep their financial troubles a secret and gets a job as a shopping mall Santa Claus, but later discovers that the job does not pay enough. Desperate for a miracle, Homer and Bart go to the dog-racing track on Christmas Eve in hopes of earning some money but end up adopting an abandoned greyhound, Santa's Little Helper.
The episode was written by Mimi Pond, and it was directed by David Silverman. "Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire" was nominated for two Emmy Awards in 1990, and has received positive reviews from television critics. It was viewed by approximately 13.4 million viewers in its original airing.
After attending the Springfield Elementary School Christmas pageant, the Simpsons prepare for the holiday season. Bart and Lisa prepare their letters to Santa; however, Bart's letter ire Marge, given he wants to get a tattoo for Christmas, to which, Homer responds to his son to pay for it himself. The next day, Marge takes the kids to the mall to go Christmas shopping. Bart slips away to the tattoo parlor and attempts to get a tattoo that reads "Mother", in the belief that Marge would appreciate it. With the tattoo practically completed, Marge bursts in and drags Bart two doors down to the dermatologist to have it removed; counting on Homer's Christmas bonus, Marge spends all of the family's holiday money on the procedure. Meanwhile, at the power plant, Homer's very mean-spirited boss, Mr. Burns, announces that there will be no Christmas bonus this year. While discovering there is no money for Christmas presents and not wanting to worry the family, Homer takes a job as a shopping mall Santa at the suggestion of his friend Barney Gumble. On Christmas Eve, Bart goes to the mall and harasses Santa, exposing Homer's secret. Bart is apologetic for the prank and actually supportive of Homer's moonlighting, remarking, "You must really love us to sink so low." After Homer is paid less than expected for his department store work, he and Bart receive a greyhound racing tip from Barney.
At Springfield Downs, Homer, inspired by an announcement about a last-minute entry named Santa's Little Helper, bets all his money on the 99:1 long shot. The greyhound finishes last. As Homer and Bart leave the track, they watch the dog's owner angrily disowning him for losing the race. Bart pleads with Homer to keep the dog as a pet, and he reluctantly agrees. When Bart and Homer return home, Homer finally comes clean to the family that he did not get his Christmas bonus; however, the family assumes Santa's Little Helper is their present and are overjoyed by Homer's gesture. The Simpsons family then celebrate by singing "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer".
The Simpsons creator Matt Groening conceived of the idea for the Simpsons in the lobby of James L. Brooks's office. Brooks, the producer of the sketch comedy program The Tracey Ullman Show, wanted to use a series of animated shorts as bumpers between sketches. He had asked Groening to pitch an idea for a series of animated shorts, which Groening initially intended to present as his Life in Hell series. However, when Groening realized that animating Life in Hell would require the rescinding of publication rights for his life's work, he chose another approach and formulated his version of a dysfunctional family.