My favorite Christmas movie of all time is not It’s A Wonderful Life or A Christmas Story or White Christmas or Miracle on 34th Street or Meet Me in St. Louis. No, it’s the original pilot episode of The Waltons, 90 minutes that introduced the Depression-era extended family to America and kicked off a nine-year run on CBS.
The Homecoming: A Christmas Story aired on December 19, 1971, with different actors playing Ma, Pa and Grandpa (Patricia Neal, Andrew Duggan and Edgar Bergen, respectively), than those who appeared in the subswequent series. The rest of the cast (Grandma and the kids) stuck around for whole nine years. You can buy the DVD of the movie on Amazon, or you can watch a free online version on You Tube (the YouTube quality is less-than-perfect, but the fuzzy grain simply adds to the atmosphere.)
The story takes place on Christmas Eve on Walton’s Mountain. John-Boy (Richard Thomas), the eldest son and tortured adolescent writer, becomes the de facto head of the family when his father is delayed by a snowstorm coming home from his low wage job in the city. The only telephone is at the corner store, and John-Boy has to borrow a car to go in search of his dad, who may have been injured, or worse, in a bus accident. Mama (Neal) meanwhile keeps a dignified hold on her nerves while worried sick about her husband and the thickening snowfall. There is no money for presents, but a Robin Hood is driving the countryside, distributing stolen turkeys to needy families.
The Homecoming touches on many issues within its tightly packed 90 minutes, including religious hypocrisy and rural self-righteousness, while also celebrating traditional help-thy-neighbor themes within the close-knit joshing of this poor, but loving family. The movie might play like heartland hogwash to citified, multi-ethnic, multi-sexual, hard-eyed unsentimentalists, especially if they grew up with dysfunctional or non-existent families. But you’d have to be some type of calcified Scrooge to not appreciate the resonance this Walton’s Christmas has for our troubling, digitally-distracted age of instant gratification and financial insecurity.
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