On tonight's new episode of 'Modern Family,' Gloria dumps her visiting mother on an unsuspecting Claire, while Jay takes Manny on the hunt for the perfect Christmas tree. Meanwhile, Phil attempts to put his elliptical machine from last Christmas to good use, Haley and Alex work for Santa at the mall, and Cam and Mitch prepare for Pepper's party while trying to fix a last-minute Christmas present mix-up. If that sounds like a lot of plot, it is, and while it doesn't entirely work, there's some pretty sweet stuff in this special Christmas episode.

After the last two episodes represented a return to form for 'Modern Family,' this week stumbles a little bit, but mostly sustains a sweet tone. Gloria's mother comes for a visit, inspiring Gloria to trick Claire into coming over to sub in while the former takes a breather. But when Gloria returns home and finds Claire (who is bitter about her own mother's absence and neglect) getting along with her mother, the pair start squabbling like siblings and wind up learning a lesson about how the bond between mother and daughter never really goes away -- a mother will always need her daughter, and vice versa, even and especially if one or the other seems particularly resistant. While the message is sort of slight and doesn't quite land perhaps as well as intended, the bickering between Claire and Gloria is pretty fun to watch.

While the girls at the Pritchett household are wrapped up in their own drama, Jay and Manny are involved in perhaps the weakest story of the night, off to find a real Christmas tree because Manny has set up some fiber optic nonsense and Jay wants to prove something about manliness and tradition. It seems mostly like a distraction to keep them occupied in an episode that otherwise doesn't know what to do with them since everyone else is busy with legitimate plots. Except for Phil, whose arc -- while providing some of that signature Phil Dunphy slapstick flair -- is just sort of silly. In an effort to prove to himself that he needs his elliptical machine from last Christmas, he's determined to walk the equivalent of the length to Canada, or else he's banishing the thing to the garage; enter Luke, who's been forgetting to take the recycling out to the curb and has been hoarding it in said garage, and the usual shenanigans ensue. Also: good lord, Luke has gotten so big.

Meanwhile, Haley and Alex get probably the funniest story of the night as they're off at the mall's North Pole, assisting Santa. Haley as an elf and Alex as Mrs. Claus, and both struggling with adult concepts, like Alex trying to calm a stressed Santa and entering into an impromptu marriage, while Haley tries to keep an impatient crowd at bay. Taking Alex from precocious kid to a teen who's constantly either mistaken for an adult or put into adult situations way ahead of her time has been a successful running gag, and one that hasn't lost any steam just yet.

And while it's not the funniest story of the night, the sweetest is what's going on with Mitch, Cam, and Lily: while Cam takes Lily off to a fundraiser for the needy, Mitch rushes around to find her the Puppy Pound toy she desperately desires after a slight mix-up -- after all, it's the only gift she requested (and I like this idea that they're a family who isn't struggling, but their kid isn't a spoiled brat). But while Mitch is out on his quest, Cam realizes a little too late that he isn't attending an event as a contributor -- he's unwittingly taken Lily to an event as a charity case himself. And when Mitch realizes he has to buy gifts for a party later that night (and I'm kind of bummed we didn't get to see Pepper's undoubtedly amazing 12 Gays of Christmas party) and shows up with them at said event, Cam guiltily gives all the very adult presents away. Finally, when Lily winds up with the one gift she wanted the most, she gives it to a child less fortunate than herself -- sure, it's all a bit neat, but what do you expect from a show like 'Modern Family'? It's tugging just the right heart strings tonight, for sure, and I think they've played Lily with just the right attitude that she earns sweet moments like this one. It's kind of unexpected.

While the stuff with Phil and Luke and Manny and Jay isn't the greatest and feels a little like filler, the rest of "The Old Man and the Tree" is definitely in keeping with the holiday spirit: it's all about family, and tonight's episode doesn't let us down in that regard. It's not as great as last week's outing, but it'll do for now.