On Christmas Eve in 1971 many Americans entered into a decade of living vicariously through the Great Depression and events leading up to World War II. They entered this world through the lives of a Southern family struggling to survive during the 1930’s. This trip into the past began with the excitement of a Christmas that was threatened with anxiety over a missing family member.
It all started with the airing of a family Christmas movie called The Homecoming. These days, family Christmas movies have become a cottage industry, with Hallmark leading the way, showing nightly starting in early November. In contrast, in the 1960’s and ’70’s, there were a few recurring Christmas specials, such as A Charlie Brown Christmas along with some older movies like It’s a Wonderful Life playing in the weeks leading up to Christmas. But Christmas movies were a special treat.
The Homecoming was based on a short novel by the same title written by Earl Hamner, a Virginia author who grew up in the Shenandoah Mountains. The book was a sequel to Spencer’s Mountain, a story based on Hamner’s family experiences. Spencer’s Mountain, which came out in 1961, was made into a movie starring Henry Fonda. Both the book and the movie were successes.
Some years later, Hamner began what was to be a short story about the Spencer family which was based on a family experience at the height of the Great Depression. Due to the shutdown of the local mill, his father had taken on work in Waynesboro, Virginia, which was more than fifty miles away. He had to take a bus part of the way home and hitchhike or walk the rest of the way. On Christmas Eve in 1933, the day began overcast and gray, and soon the heavy clouds began releasing snow and sleet. By early evening the roads were frozen over.
The family at home, which included eight children, went through the usual rituals of preparing for Christmas Day. As the day went by, the excitement was increasingly muted by the tensions and fears, mainly in the mother but also in the children who were wondering when their daddy would get home. As Hamner began adapting this memory to his story, it grew into a short novel. In spite of the success of his earlier book, The Homecoming was only marginally successful.
All that changed when the book was picked up by Lee Rich, who was part of the newly created Lorimar, a production company in Hollywood. Hamner was contracted to write the screen play, and the process began that would tell his family stories to a whole generation of television viewers.
As the story came together, the Spencer family the Waltons. There were concerns about the size of the cast and a decision was made that there would only be seven Walton children. Hamner’s father, and John Spencer, Hamner’s fictional father, referred to his red-haired children as his “thoroughbreds.” The casting began for a group of children from ages fifteen to six who either had red hair or could have hair dyed with a red tint. Patricia O’Neal, a film legend, played the role of the mother, and Richard Thomas played the role of the oldest son, who was modeled after Hamner himself.
Although the outside scenes of the show were shot in Wyoming, the setting for the story was the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. In true Southern fashion, the Walton family had lived on the same plot of land for many generations. The community itself was known as Walton’s Mountain. It was the land that defined the roots, history, and struggle of the family. It was the center for their strength and bonding. Owning a large tract of mountain land was the source for a treasured ritual on Christmas Eve—finding and cutting a Christmas tree.
After the tree was brought into the house, the children excitedly began going through the box of Christmas decorations from the attic. The big moment came when they checked the tree lights. If any one light was out, the whole string would be out. Along with that, the children cracked walnuts for their mother’s applesauce cake, took care of routine chores like milking the cow and gathering firewood, and shared their hopes for what Santa Claus might bring them.
Hamner and the other writers changed portions of the book for the movie version. In the book, much of the mother’s fear is that her husband has dropped off at a local joint where he is drinking and gambling away the paycheck. In the movie, her great fear is that he might be injured after she hears a radio report of a bus accident earlier in the evening.
Since John-Boy, as played by Richard Thomas, is the oldest son, he has to take on some major responsibilities during the evening. Being fifteen, he is still a boy, but being the oldest son on a farm during the Great Depression, he has to act like a man. The road to manhood is often portrayed by journeys and quests, and in The Homecoming, John-Boy journeys out on the cold, snowy night on a quest to find his father. On that journey, he experiences driving and getting stuck in the snow, participating in the Christmas Eve service at a black church, and entertaining a couple of older local ladies who specialize in making moonshine whiskey, which they refer to as “the recipe.”
The movie was a success. It became the pilot for the television series which carried the family through events that paralleled the actual history of the 1930’s. The Walton family struggled week to week with financial woes, with the pains of children growing up and grandparents growing older, and with reports on the radio telling of growing tensions in Europe.
By the end of the series in 1981, most of the Walton children had grown up. Some had married and had children who were part of the show. From beginning to end, it was the Southern roots, including Earl Hamner’s accent as he narrated the first and last of the show. No matter how many years went by, no matter how much the children grew or the cast changed, those who grew to love the Waltons traced their love back to The Homecoming.
SEE MORE HOMECOMING IMAGES HERE