Bolton slipped to bottom of the Premier League after goals from Marc Albrighton and Stiliyan Petrov helped Aston Villa bounce back to form at the Reebok.
Albrighton steered home a cross from the left and Petrov scored from 30 yards out in a one-sided first half.
Ivan Klasnic's turn and finish gave hope of a comeback but a late injury to the striker ended Bolton's chances.
Wigan's victory over West Brom leapfrogs them over Wanderers, while Villa are up to eighth.
The Midlanders will hope the victory will kickstart a campaign that looked to have hit the buffers, but the sense of trepidation enveloping the Reebok Stadium heading into the new year underlines the seriousness of the predicament facing Owen Coyle's men.
After a dreadful performance in the opening 45 minutes, they upped their game after the break and might have taken at least a point from the match.
Alex McLeish, perhaps mindful of the flak he has been taking from sections of the Villa support for a perceived negative style of play, handed starts to wingers Charles N'Zogbia and Albrighton.
Bolton had conceded 34 goals in 14 games before this - the worst defensive record in the Premier League - so it was perhaps a sound judgement by McLeish.
Did you know?
Marc Albrighton's last Premier League goal was in the fixture at Bolton last season, in the 3-2 defeat in March.
Petrov and Darren Bent had already gone close by the time Albrighton opened the scoring in the 33rd minute.
Gabriel Agbonlahor got free down the left and his cross was converted by the unmarked Albrighton.
Just six minutes later, Petrov picked up the ball 30 yards from goal and, with nobody closing him down, the Villa skipper tried his luck from range and his shot, which took a deflection off Gary Cahill, nestled into the bottom corner.
The deflection might have been a stroke of luck for the Villans, but it was one they fully deserved.
Wanderers were finally woken from their slumber when Kevin Davies brought a fine save out of Brad Guzan while, minutes after the restart, Klasnic was blocked out by a bank of Villa defenders.
That should have served as a warning to the visitors, who saw their lead halved after 55 minutes when Zat Knight fired towards Klasnic and the Croatian swivelled and scored from six yards out.
But Bolton were still poor at the back and Bent could have restored the two-goal advantage when he fired wide, unmarked from eight yards.
Chris Eagles looked dangerous for the home team but the momentum was lost as Klasnic was taken off injured after twisting his knee in an innocuous-looking challenge, with the Croatian's replacement David Ngog failing to offer the same threat.
Bolton manager Owen Coyle:
"At half-time I asked, if nothing else, for them to show that they care for the club in the second half, and they did that.
"There were still some mistakes, but it was a much better performance and much more like ourselves.
"But it is not good enough to just do it for the duration of a second half, it has to be for the entirety of a match."
Aston Villa manager Alex McLeish:
"I'm delighted to get the first away win of the season.
"It's been a long time coming - we have thrown away a couple of opportunities, so well done to the players for digging deep at the end under a barrage of Bolton attacks.
"It is credit to their mental toughness, and hopefully that is improving after capitulating at a couple of other away venues."
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