The film takes place in fictional Clear River, Nebraska in 1946. 10-year-old Addie Mills, a lonely girl behind her large horn-rimmed glasses, lives in a plain, ordinary house with her widowed father James and her loving grandmother. Her mother had died shortly after she was born; this builds resentment in her father, who wonders why his beloved wife had to die rather than their tiny and sickly baby (whose first name is taken from her father's middle name). His only interaction with Addie seems to be in frequent corrections of her. Since his wife's death, there has never been a Christmas tree in the Mills "home," although Addie has constantly challenged this omission. Finally she wins her class Christmas tree in a school contest—which she wins using a guessing technique she learned from none other than her father—and brings it home for her first Christmas with a tree. James promptly orders the tree to be removed. His mother speaks up, reminding him that the house belongs to her; he responds by threatening to take Addie and clear out, leaving her alone in the house. In the middle of the night, Addie sneaks out and removes the tree, to deliver it to the only one of her classmates who also goes treeless at Christmas. (This is mainly because her family is more economically-troubled—and larger, teeming with children who would be thrilled to finally have a tree.) At last James finally relaizing just how selfish and emotionally distant he has been in regards to his daughter rethinks his position and comes home with a tree and several boxes of ornaments—everything but a star. James goes up to the attic and brings down just such a star as he had not brought home, one much more magnificently-made than the one Addie had made for her prize tree, out of tinfoil that "everybody" saved and collected back in his day, such as from chewing-gum wrappers. When Addie admires the star her father shows her, he reveals that her mother had crafted it especially for her much-longed-for first baby's first Christmas. Then he lifts her up and they place her star on the tree. Viewers are led to believe that this begins their improved father-daughter relationship and they will finally start to grow closer. The show ends with the voice of Addie speaking as a grown woman: her dear grandmother has died and she has moved to the big city, but returns every year for Christmas with her father, who always has a Christmas tree ready for her to hang her star.Addie Mills (Lisa Lucas)
James Addison Mills III, Addie's father (Jason Robards)
Sarah Mills, Addie's grandmother (Mildred Natwick)
Miss Peggy Thompson, Addie's schoolteacher (Kathryn Walker)
Carla Mae Carter, Addie's best friend (Alexa Kenin)
The Narrator/adult Addie Mills (Patricia Hamilton, who was not credited)
Billy Wild, Addie's classmate (Brady McNamara)
Originally shown on CBS on December 3, 1972, this movie was actually a very low-budget film produced on videotape. John J. O'Connor, the television critic for The New York Times, highly praised the program. In his review, O'Connor observed that "what could have been cloyingly sticky was kept, in an unusually sensitive script by Eleanor Perry, gently perceptive. For one thing, the characterization of Addie did not fall into the Sunnybrook Farm mold typical of most little girls on TV. This one, wearing glasses, made no apologies for being a precocious Miss Know‐It‐All. For another, Paul Bogart's direction was intelligent, helped considerably by fine performances from Jason Roberts as the father, Lisa Lucas as Addie and, especially, Mildred Natwick as the grandmother." He summed up his critique by saying "C.B.S. would seem to have another Christmas perennial on its hands." (The New York Times article "TV: 'Tis The Season for Family Entertainment" by John J. O'Connor - December 6, 1972, p. 95). As a result of its critical acclaim and high ratings, the program was repeated several times in the 1970s, on CBS, during the holiday season. The following year, a sequel was presented over the CBS Television Network on November 18, 1973. The special, entitled "The Thanksgiving Treasure" featured essentially the same cast with the exception of guest star character actor Barnard Hughes as James Mills's nemesis Walter Renquist and Frannie Michel (who replaced Alexa Kenin as Addie's best friend).
Once again, John J. O'Connor of The New York Times was quite impressed with the program. In his review, he wrote "this time around, Addie took her classroom Thanksgiving lesson seriously enough to attempt friendship with one of her father's old enemies, an elderly misanthrope living as a recluse on a nearby farm. After a slow beginning, dawdling too long around school scenes, the hour settled effectively and touchingly on the central relationship of the story. Again, the acting — particularly by the remarkable Miss Lucas — was fine, the photography excellent and the graphics, used as 'bridges' between scenes, were superb." (The New York Times article - "TV: The Holiday Menu" by John J. O'Connor - November 23, 1973, p. 72). It, too, was rebroadcast a few times during the 1970s. After that, two more sequels were produced - The Easter Promise, presented on March 29, 1975 over the CBS Television Network featured guest star actress Jean Simmons and Addie and The King of Hearts broadcast on CBS on February 25, 1976, in which the guest stars were Diane Ladd and Richard Hatch. By this time, however, the annual series had run its course and no further installments were produced. In 1991, The House Without A Christmas Tree was released on VHS, and then on DVD in 2007.
Each act of the story featured collages that opened and closed it between commercial breaks. The collage artist who assembled these for the story, Norman Sunshine, won an Emmy Award for them. He later assembled other collages for The Thanksgiving Treasure.
It was filmed in Uxbridge, Ontario, mainly at the corner of Peel Street and Victoria Drive, where the house and school still exist. They also shot near the downtown core at Church and Brock Street West.
Eleanor Perry won a prime time Emmy for "Outstanding Writing Achievement in Drama - Adaptation," and Paul Bogart was nominated for a Director's Guild Award.
The Christmas show was so successful, it resulted in three other specials with the same cast, all likewise based on books that Gail Rock had written. In all of them, Lisa Lucas appeared as Addie Mills.The Thanksgiving Treasure, a Thanksgiving Day special transmitted on November 18, 1973. (On its VHS release, it was retitled The Holiday Treasure.) Patricia Hamilton, providing the voice of the older Addie Mills, narrated this special; where she had not been credited in The House Without a Christmas Tree, she was credited here.
The Easter Promise, an Easter special transmitted on March 26, 1975.
Addie and the King of Hearts, a Valentine's Day special transmitted on February 25, 1976.
All but the last of these were highly rated and were later released on VHS. However, only The House Without a Christmas Tree was known to have been made available on DVD as of late October 2012. The original Christmas special is often recommended on a variety of lists, for both holiday viewing and such other themes as about single parents.
On November 4, 2014, the DVD "Holiday Family Classics: The Thanksgiving Treasure / The House Without A Christmas Tree" was released by Paramount. The release was credited as a "Two Film Collection" but featured both programs on one DVD (Region 1 only). Soon after, there was another "Holiday Family Classics" DVD released by Paramount which included both The Easter Promise and Addie and the King of Hearts.
Houston Grand Opera commissioned an adaptation from composer Ricky Ian Gordon and librettist Royce Vavrek. The opera is scheduled to premiere on November 30, 2017.