Sunderland 3 Bolton Wanderers 1
The scoreline suggests the Black Cats enjoyed a comfortable victory, but in truth they were holding on by their fingertips until substitute Daryl Murphy put the finishing touches to a late breakaway move.
The home side faced an aerial bombardment from Wanderers late in the second half, but for all their pressure, the visitors never really tested Sunderland keeper Craig Gordon and they were made to pay by Roy Keane's men.
Neither side really took charge of the encounter in the opening stages, but the hosts eventually edged their way in front.
The Black Cats have been in dire need of flair and a creative influence in recent matches and will be hoping that the return of Kieran Richardson will prove to be the missing ingredient.
The former Manchester United midfielder was making his first start since returning from a serious back injury and certainly provided the spark the Wearsiders were looking for.
Richardson put Sunderland on their way with 13 minutes played.
A well-struck pass by frontman Kenwyne Jones found Richardson in the left-hand side of the area and the midfielder rocketed a shot into the roof of the net.
Jussi Jaaskelainen in the Bolton goal managed to get a hand to the strike, but he was powerless to stop the ball finding the net and Sunderland from taking the lead.
The home side looked to be in cruise control when Richardson returned the favour on the half-hour mark.
An in-swinging corner from Richardson was met at the near post by Jones and the big striker powered home a header.
Again Jaaskelainen got his hand to the ball, but again the power on the effort proved too much and the ball nestled in the back of the net.
It looked like it might be game over for Wanderers after that, but the Wearsiders gave the visitors a lifeline just before the stroke of half-time.
El Hadji Diouf's free-kick from about 20 yards out curled away from everyone, including home keeper Gordon and Bolton forward Kevin Davies, who at first looked to have got the slightest of touches before the ball found the back of the net.
Bolton then pushed on trying to get back on level terms, but the Black Cats kept a firm hold on their lead as half-time arrived.
Wanderers clearly sensed the hosts were looking nervous and hit them with aerial attack after aerial attack from the outset of the second half.
The home side began to defend deeper and deeper and, while they managed to clear their lines, time and again the gifted possession to their opponents to hit them again.
Keane compared his team to a boxer on the ropes earlier this week and his side were in danger of becoming punch drunk as they tried to absorb the barrage of attacks.
But with the play of both teams becoming more and more frantic, Sunderland hit Wanderers on the break.
It was to prove game over for Gary Megson's men as Jones flicked on to Murphy and he held off the attentions of Danny Guthrie to fire low past Jaaskelainen.
The strike produced joyful scenes on the home terraces as they began celebrating the new year festivities a couple of days early.