About Christmas TV History

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Homecoming: A Christmas Story (1971)

It's the 40th anniversary of The Homecoming, the successful TV movie that led to the long-running TV series, the endearing family drama-- The Waltons.  Who could forget the Walton childen: John-Boy (Richard Thomas), Mary Ellen (Judy Norton), Jason (John Walmsley), Ben (Eric Scott), Erin (Mary McDonough), Jim Bob (David Harper) and Elizabeth (Kami Cotler)?  Though many of the adult roles would eventually be recast for the TV series, in The Homecoming the character of the father John Walton is played by Andrew Duggan, Grandpa is played Edgar Bergen, and the mother Olivia is played by Patricia Neal. Ellen Corby plays Grandma in both the pilot movie and the TV series.

Those gorgeous Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia surrounding Walton's Mountain
The story takes place at Christmas 1933 during the Depression, and father, John Walton, has traveled over fifty miles away to find work.  The family is eagerly awaiting his return home on Christmas Eve as they prepare for the holiday.  When their father hasn't come home by evening time, the children are sent to bed and the eldest, 15 year-old John-Boy is sent to go look for him.  Olivia worries that a bus accident she heard about on the radio may have slowed John’s journey--or worse he may have been a passenger.

John-Boy and Hawthorne (Cleavon Little) stop by the Baldwin Sisters' home on Christmas Eve

John-Boy searches across Walton’s Mountain on Christmas Eve stopping to see a church’s Nativity play, borrowing a car at Ike Godsey’s store, dropping by the Baldwin Sisters’ home asking for gasoline--and even driving a horse-drawn sleigh looking for his father who may be hitchhiking on the side of the road.

Mama tells Mary Ellen that she likes her bird's nest Christmas tree decoration
**What is your favorite moment in this heartwarming movie?**

In the barn, Mary Ellen explains the legend about how animals talk at midnight on Christmas Eve
One precious storyline is the children’s desire to find out for themselves if the animals in the barn will actually talk at midnight as rumors claim.

The condescending missionary gives Elizabeth a Christmas present...

...a doll no one wants
Another touching moment is the scene where young Elizabeth acquires the baby doll from the missionary distributing broken toys to the poor mountain children.  The little girl learns a tough lesson about charity that night.

Who did you see on the roof, Daddy?
Daddy explains how he wrassled the stranger he found carrying the bag
And, another high point is the final scene where John finally arrives home and shares his wild story about the stranger he encountered on the roof of their home as his explanation for carrying a bag of Christmas gifts into the house for each of his children.

John-Boy receives writing tablets for Christmas...where are my kleenex?

Much of the best of the TV series is already present in this TV movie:  the poignant narration by Earl Hamner, the creator of the TV series, giving meaning and perspective on the Waltons family experiences.  And, the familiar closing scene of the exterior of the Waltons' home as the bedroom lights are being turned out and the family members say good night to each other.

In honor of the 40th anniversary of this movie, an event has been created in Jersey City, NJ on Friday Dec. 2, 2011.  In the legendary Loews Theatre, they will be screening The Homecoming to be followed by a cast reunion of the movie along with several cast members of The Waltons.  There will be a panel dicussion with the cast members as well as a question and answer segment with the public.  For more details: http://waltonshomecoming40th.com.  Of course, I wouldn't miss this once-in-a-lifetime event--I'll be there as the moderator for the panel discussion and Q&A.

If you can't make the New Jersey event, you can still enjoy watching The Homecoming with your family as it is available on for viewing DVD.   The TV series The Waltons is currently airing on the Hallmark Channel, GMC (Gospel Music Channel) and the Inspiration Network.

Joanna Wilson is a TV researcher and book author specializing in Christmas entertainment. More about the TV programs mentioned on this website can be found in her book "Tis the Season TV: the Encyclopedia of Christmas-themed Episodes, Specials, and Made-for-TV Movies." Her latest book "Triple Dog Dare: Watching--& Surviving--the 24-Hour Marathon of A Christmas Story" was released in 2016. She is currently updating and expanding the encyclopedia for a 2021 release. Her books can be found at the publisher's website: 1701 press.com

*Support this website and its research by purchasing the books at 1701 press.com

The Homecoming ends just like many episodes of the series: "Goodnight John-Boy...Goodnight Elizabeth....Goodnight Mama..."   


  1. I have never watched this movie, never really watched much of the Waltons, either. I remember seeing it on but whomever was in control of the remote preferred Little House, which I remember seeing more often. Might see if I can get a gander at this one, this year. ;)

  2. You should. It is easily one of the best Christmas TV movies ever made. It's really worth seeking out--and it's easy to find--it's on DVD.

  3. It's the best Christmas TV movie ever made (well, tied with HOUSE WITHOUT A CHRISTMAS TREE, anyway).

    1. I know this comment was posted many years ago, but I agree 100%! These 2 movies are the ones I watch over and over every Christmas, since I found them on DVD! I hope this Christmas finds you and your family well, safe and happy!

  4. Just watched it again last night. It really is one of the very best Christmas films, period, never mind being made for TV. It's superior to The Waltons TV series (which I loved as a kid) in almost every way: it's shot on location (with Wyoming standing in for Virginia), the characters have real grit (and Blue Ridge Mountain accents) and there's a realism to it that gets lost when The Waltons went to series. It's a gorgeous, slice-of-depression-era-life film. And Patricia Neal and Richard Thomas are brilliant. Well worth seeing even if you never watch an episode of the TV series that followed.

  5. I watch it once a year on Christmas Eve.... very touching film...

  6. Watched The Homecoming as a child. Try to catch it every year on a cable channel. One of the best Christmas specials to view.
    Patricia Neal and Richard Thomas are awesome. Hope others get to see this one.

  7. Watched The Homecoming as a child. Try to catch it every year on a cable channel. One of the best Christmas specials to view.
    Patricia Neal and Richard Thomas are awesome. Hope others get to see this one.

  8. The entire movie including the original Dec. 19, 1971 CBS Network introduction is available on YouTube here...


  9. best shows I watched as kid love this movie and the series

  10. best Christmas show when I was kid love the waltons movie and the waltons series

  11. oh my god this one traumitized me as a child. that doll...

  12. This film is a must-see every year at Christmas time...a true gem with lovely and touching performances. Do not miss it!

  13. Not sure if you keep up with comments on old posts, but thought I'd mention Kami Cotler has been sharing her memories of filming The Homecoming on her FB page https://www.facebook.com/Kami-Cotler-133662700985/ Very interesting insight from her 6-year-old (at the time) perspective.