It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown is a beloved holiday special that is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. It is also a 25-minute portrait of optimistic young people placing their faith in individuals and communities that consistently disappoint them.
I know what you’re thinking: Who is this crackpot trying to suck all the fun out of a sacrosanct animated Halloween tradition? She must hate Snoopy and trick-or-treating and Hershey’s miniatures and America, probably. The truth is I love It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, so much so that I will probably watch it live when it airs tonight on ABC and again when it’s broadcast on October 28, even though I have more than one copy of it on DVD. But as I grow older, I find myself viewing it differently, seeing things in it that should have been obvious to Younger Me if Younger Me hadn’t been so busy laughing at Charlie’s Brown’s inability to make a simple ghost costume out of a bed sheet.
It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown aired for the first time on CBS on October 27, 1966, as a follow-up to the successful A Charlie Brown Christmas that had debuted the previous December. When something works, network executives, then as now, always want another just like it. So "Peanuts" creator and writer Charles M. Schulz, producer Lee Mendelson, and animator-director Bill Melendez collaborated on a second holiday-oriented feature to feed to the network. But The Great Pumpkin turned out to be a response to A Charlie Brown Christmas in more ways than one.
Like the strip that inspired them, both TV specials deal with adult themes and have a melancholy tone that can sometimes be obscured by all the colorful, kid-friendly animation on their surfaces. A Charlie Brown Christmas, the more overtly religious and hopeful of the two, is essentially about a depressed boy (Charlie Brown) who’s advised that he’ll feel better if he engages with his community and directs the Christmas play, but finds that everyone involved in the play is completely hostile toward him. Only after Linus recites a portion of the New Testament do Charlie Brown and his friends find common ground and, through the life-changing magic of waving their hands really fast, turn a sad little Christmas tree into a thing of beauty. It’s an uplifting short film, but one that stays true to the cynical streak that courses through Schulz’s work.
It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown doesn’t have a happy ending and is the more honest show because of it, which is appropriate given how much value Linus places on the sincerity of his pumpkin patches. In just about every scene of this Halloween-themed cartoon, what should be a joyful moment is turned into a bummer. Even the very first scene, in which Linus and Lucy go to elaborate lengths to carve a jack-o'-lantern, is punctured by Linus’s shock after his sister dumps the pumpkin’s guts all over their living-room carpet. “You didn’t tell me you were going to kill it!” he shouts. The subtext of that moment: Hello, kid. Welcome to the way life works.
Over and over again in the Great Pumpkin, children get their hopes up only to have them splattered all over the place like those scooped-out pumpkin innards. Charlie Brown believes Lucy will hold the football so he can run up and kick it, but of course, she pulls it away and he lands square on his back. Charlie Brown celebrates having been invited to a Halloween party only to be told he was invited by accident; when he shows up, his friends use the back of his bald head as a sketchpad. While trick-or-treating, Charlie Brown never gets candy in his sack; instead, all he receives are rocks. Sally, ever-devoted to her Sweet Babboo, misses trick-or-treating because she opts to spend her October 31 next to Linus, waiting for a Great Pumpkin who never comes. Even Snoopy loses his battle against the Red Baron, in a fantasy conjured up by his own beagle brain.
Then there’s poor Linus, the delusional elementary-schooler who expresses his unwavering dedication to a massive flying squash plant that will somehow, despite having no arms, legs, or animate qualities, deliver presents to good little children on Halloween night. What does Linus get in return for his devotion to this mythical orange figure? He gets to sleep outside alone, in a thoroughly sincere but totally empty pumpkin patch. Seriously: It’s a wonder we all continue to watch this special without injecting antidepressants directly into our veins every year.
As I wrote in a piece for the Washington Post several years ago, it’s striking how mean and dismissive everyone is toward Linus in this show. “You’d better cut it out right now or I’ll pound you,” Lucy warns her brother as he writes his letter to the Great Pumpkin. “You’re wasting your time, he’s a fake,” adds Patty. “You must be crazy. When are you going to stop believing in something that isn’t true?” says Charlie Brown, who should be more empathetic considering that his entire life is based on attempting the impossible over and over again. Still, as Schulz explained in a 1984 interview, there is some positivity in It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown and it comes from Linus’s steadfast faith despite all of the detractors around him. “Linus represented a special quality of hope and belief, against all odds,” Schulz said in that story, published in the Baltimore Afro-American newspaper. “And it says that we all need [a] colorful, generous, romantic hero — even if he is only make-believe.”
Given the references to the Lord and Jesus in A Charlie Brown Christmas, it’s not a far reach to interpret Linus’s belief in the Great Pumpkin as a metaphor for faith in a higher power. That’s certainly the more uplifting way to look at it, especially if you’re a religious person. But from a more practical, secular standpoint, it’s hard not to see Linus for who he probably is: an anxious child who has invented an imaginary autumnal hero to bring him comfort. It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown and, to the best of my recollection, the "Peanuts" strips, never explain how the concept of the Great Pumpkin first entered Linus’s mind, but I assume he invented this so-called romantic hero to make Halloween, and maybe life in general, a little less scary. The Great Pumpkin is Linus’s own personal Santa Claus, the Tinker Bell he knows will appear if he just claps his hands and says, “I believe in fairies” enough times, in just the right way. Which is why it’s so meaningful that, despite Lucy’s insistence that he’ll never be able to reach the mailbox and send that handwritten letter to the Great Pumpkin, Linus proves her wrong by using that other great childhood weapon against fear, uncertainty, and growing up: his security blanket.
Linus’s insistence that the Great Pumpkin is real, which literally continues until the very end of this special, is indicative of his determination. Maybe that quality is what has made It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown persevere for 50 years. Schulz, who died in 2000, often said that Charlie Brown’s unwavering ability to bounce back from failure is what made readers and viewers root for him, and that applies to Linus in this case, too. Schulz “always felt badly at Christmastime how a lot of little kids don't get anything or are expecting or hoping for more, and he was kind of showing that you don't always get what you want or you dream about, but you endure," Jean Schulz, widow of the "Peanuts" creator, told SFGate in a recent interview. “You keep going and you don't give up.” That’s not a bad lesson to teach today’s boys and girls, especially the ones who already have a sense of entitlement before they hit middle school.
But I also can’t help but feel sad every time I watch all those kids, including even once-loyal Sally, leave Linus alone to lay on the cold, hard pumpkin-patch ground. That’s how we often treat people who spout “crazy” theories, or seem a little delusional, or just nakedly express their convictions in a way that makes us uncomfortable, even when we love them. I mean, isn’t it? (“There are three things that I've learned never to discuss with people: religion, politics, and the Great Pumpkin,” Linus says, sounding, as always, wise beyond his animated years.)
At the end of A Charlie Brown Christmas, Lucy may still be calling Charlie Brown a blockhead, but at least Charlie Brown has found the sense of community he craves. At the end of the Great Pumpkin, Linus, the hero of our story, is abandoned. On top of that, Sally has no candy, and Charlie Brown is stuck with nothing but a bag full of rocks. That’s some pretty dark stuff for a children's show. But that’s how life is sometimes.
Fortunately, it isn’t always that way. As noted in that newspaper article and this Mental Floss piece about It’s the Great Pumpkin, Schulz said that for years after It’s the Great Pumpkin aired, kids would send him candy to give to Charlie Brown because they felt badly for the round-headed kid who was left with nothing but basic gravel to eat. If that’s not sincerity of the purest kind, the sort that really should be rewarded by a symbol of autumn who hands out presents to deserving little children, then I don’t know what is. I have no doubt Linus would agree.