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The Homecoming: A Christmas Story

For the most part, I think people who grew up in the ’70s and ’80s can be divided into two camps – those who prefer Little House on the Prairie and those who prefer The Waltons.

I’m definitely in the Waltons camp, so every holiday season I watch The Homecoming: A Christmas Story.

Broadcast on Dec. 19, 1971, The Homecoming opens with snowy scenes of seven children – and a cow – marching in single file across a field. The narrator – author Earl Hamner Jr. – explains that the Depression has forced family patriarch John Walton to find work miles from his home, nestled in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. On this day, Christmas Eve 1933, John has yet to make his way home. Later that night, when family matriarch Olivia Walton learns the icy roads have resulted in a bus crash and the death of an unidentified person, she sends her son, John Boy, out to find his daddy.

The Homecoming was so popular that CBS ordered a full season of the series that would become The Waltons. The only actors who would reprise their roles on the show, however, are the ones who played the children, including Richard Thomas as John Boy, and Grandma Walton.

Kentucky native and Oscar winner Patricia Neal plays Olivia in The Homecoming. Her interpretation of Olivia is harsher than the warmer version Michael Learned would make famous through her award-winning performance on the series.

Neal’s Olivia frequently unleashes her fury at John Boy. She yells at him when the young’uns misbehave and accuses him of smoking cigarettes and bringing bootleg whisky into her home. (The Waltons love pronouns. It’s never just Daddy or Mama or the children, but always my Daddy, your Mama, my children.)

Anyway, when confronted with the truth, Olivia shows a softer, supportive side. She loves her children, but she’s basically a single mother managing a house full of seven young’uns in the dark days of the Depression. It’s no wonder she derives such pleasure in simple things like finding her Christmas cactus and making applesauce cake.

Olivia’s characterization isn’t the only difference between the movie and the series. The movie is much more realistic in general. I love The Waltons, but as much as they carry on about never having any money, I don’t buy what they’re selling. Maybe it’s because, in the depths of their struggles, they invariably find an antique in the attic or a job with some stranger who happens to wander into Ike’s store.

But, in The Homecoming, when Olivia explains to John Boy that the scarves she’s knitted represent the only Santie Claus they’re going to have this year, I buy her every word.

Of course, it turns out that multiple variations of Santie Claus visit the Waltons that Christmas. The most disturbing is a missionary who hands out presents to children gathered at Ike’s store. This part both infuriates and confuses me. Although the missionary insists the children recite a quote from the Bible and also tells them their Sunday school teachers must be proud, she still refers to them as infidels. She comes across as a mixture of ignorance, stupidity, and condescension.

Although it’s clearly spelled out in the opening credits, I didn’t know The Homecoming was based on a separate Hamner novel until last month. I had always assumed the movie, like the series, was based on his book, Spencer’s Mountain. Thankfully, our awesome library district had a copy of The Homecoming, which is now in my possession.

I’ve never read any of Hamner’s work. On the other hand, I read the entire Little House series as a child. Maybe I’ll enjoy The Homecoming. Maybe I won’t. But at least I know I can keep coming home to the movie every Christmas.

This post originally appeared in the Appalachian News-Express.

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