Patrick van Aanholt ensured Sunderland will not be bottom of the Premier League at Christmas as his second-half strike was enough to see off Watford 1-0 at the Stadium of Light.
After a run of three wins in four kick-started Sunderland's lacklustre start to the campaign and lifted them off the bottom, back-to-back defeats against fellow relegation candidates Swansea City and league leaders Chelsea had sent them back down to 20th position.
Manager David Moyes would have been fearing a similar result when only a save of the utmost brilliance from Jordan Pickford stopped Nordin Amrabat's volley from finding the top-left corner in the second minute.
But Van Aanholt, who was denied an equaliser in second-half stoppage time against Chelsea by a sensational Thibaut Courtois save, put Sunderland ahead early in the second half.
Substitute Christian Kabasele was unable to clear Jermain Defoe's right-wing cross adequately and Van Aanholt span over the ball and found the back of the net via the upright with a first-time finish.
The Black Cats took on a defensive approach in the closing stages and dug in for the win, moving above Swansea and Hull City and just one point adrift of safety, while Watford have slipped down to 12th.
Amrabat came close to a sensational early opener when he lashed a volley from the edge of the box, but Pickford sprung to his right to tip it over.
Miguel Britos was unable to blame a similar intervention for failing to convert in the 26th minute when he headed Holebas' free-kick wide from point-blank range, though the final touch may have come off former Sunderland defender Younes Kaboul.
Watford replaced the injured Sebastian Prodl with Kabasele after the half-hour mark, and the Belgian courted controversy before half-time when he went down dramatically after a collision with Victor Anichebe.
The atmosphere in the stands began to turn sour and Van Aanholt failed to take a chance to give the home supporters something to celebrate in stoppage-time, shooting straight at Heurelho Gomes, making his 150th Premier League appearance, at his near post.
Van Aanholt needed just four second-half minutes to atone for that error, though, producing an instinctive finish after Defoe's cross.
Anichebe slammed a curling effort from the edge of the area narrowly wide of the upright after the hour-mark as Sunderland grew in confidence from their goal.
There was a scare, however, when Troy Deeney - restored to the starting line-up - missed the target with a header from Amrabat's delivery.
Moyes signalled his intent to hold on to the one-goal lead when he replaced Adnan Januzaj with John O'Shea in the 81st minute, but there was still time for more drama.
Watford substitute and former Newcastle United right-back Daryl Janmaat was kept out by Pickford before the goalkeeper got down low to his right to save an 18-yard strike from Odion Ighalo with four minutes remaining.
Holebas sent a free-kick over the bar after a controversial handball decision was given against Papy Djilobodji, but Sunderland held on for an important victory ahead of the festive period.