Earl Hamner Jr. passed away this week at the age of 92 and the world hardly noticed.
Hamner was a prolific writer whose contributions were more noted on television than anywhere else. While he is no Dickens his Christmas story titled The Homecoming was more than just a TV movie that launched a successful, long-running television series known as The Waltons.
The Homecoming should be considered one of the most important Christmas movies ever made.
The movie is based on Hamner’s true story of Christmas 1933. He was just ten years old when this event took place.
The story tells of the family’s desperate circumstances. It was a large family whose father had lost his job in a nearby mine and had to find work miles away, a heart wrenching reality that allowed him only to return home on weekends after being dropped off by a bus that would leave him six miles still from home.
As a Christmas story this movie tells of the father’s Christmas Eve homecoming when a storm forced the oldest son, John-boy, on an adventure over those six miles to try to find his father and bring him home for Christmas.
To understand why this movie was so important, and Hamner’s contribution through it to Christmas and television history, you must consider the time in which it burst upon the public.
CBS Television aired the movie on December 19, 1971 — a time when family was under fire in American culture.
All in the Family got it’s start in 1971, a critical success that lampooned traditional American family dynamics and mocked the attitudes of Depression-era generations.
This came on the heels of a tumultuous political period of the 1960s when free love and “rugged individualism” took up new definitions in counter-culture America.
The charged political debates of the time were squarely focused on non-traditional and what some considered anti-family themes: drugs, abortion, the anti-war movement, the environmental movement, the Equal Rights Amendment, etc.
The Homecoming celebrates family. It captures, like a snapshot in time, the essence of America during the Depression. And it brings that all together under a Christmas theme.
America, which rocked from the debates of the age, seemed to bask in this nostalgic celebration of family. CBS, sensing the positive reaction to The Homecoming meant an untapped programming market, launched The Waltons, a television series based on the characters introduced in The Homecoming. The series ran for more than a decade and holds a place in American television history as a champion for families.
The Homecoming has seen a resurgence in popularity in recent years as the movie has been rebroadcast on various cable channels and made available via DVD and Blu Ray. Some consider it a holiday staple along side other classics such as White Christmas or How the Grinch Stole Christmas.
Dickens achieved cult status with A Christmas Carol because of the transformation of Scooge as he embraced Christmas celebration. The Homecoming is doing the same with its tale of a family’s transformation from focusing on a material Christmas during difficult times to really celebrating simply because they were together. It is an old and even familiar story, one expertly told by Hamner and appreciated still today.