October 27, 2016 is the 50th anniversary of the original airing of It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. In the 50 years since it originally aired on CBS, the special has become an annual Halloween tradition for many families spanning several generations. In celebration of the 50th anniversary, let’s take a look back at the classic Peanuts special.
I’m pretty sure the spoiler rule no longer applies after 50 years, but just in case you have never seen It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, consider this your SPOILER ALERT.
What’s It About, Charlie Brown?
The main story involves Linus‘ unfaltering belief in The Great Pumpkin, a holiday figure apparently only he believes in. The reactions of the rest of the Peanuts gang to Linus’ belief range from pity to outright disdain and laughter. Only Charlie Brown‘s sister, Sally, believes Linus, due in no small part to her crush on her “sweet babboo.”
While all the other children go out trick or treating then attend a Halloween party at Violet‘s house, Linus and Sally faithfully wait in a local pumpkin patch to catch a glimpse of The Great Pumpkin, who Linus says will visit only those who are faithful and sincere in their belief of the holiday. At one point, they mistake the shadowy silhouette of Snoopy against the moonlight for the Great Pumpkin, and Linus immediately faints. Sally realizes her mistake and abandons him, and ultimately the Great Pumpkin never makes an appearance.
The Red Baron Sequence
One especially memorable segment features Snoopy as a World War I flying ace climbing aboard his Sopwith Camel fighter plane (actually his doghouse) to do battle with the infamous Red Baron. The scene is a Peanuts classic, containing several funny visual gags and hitting a variety of emotional beats that really showed off how well the ingenuity of Schultz’s simple character designs could still portray such a wide range of feelings. Similar segments made their way into several future Peanuts specials. In an interview with The Washington Post, Executive Producer Lee Mendelson called it “one of the most memorable animated scenes ever.”
As with many Peanuts specials, It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown closes out with the two friends, Linus and Charlie Brown, ruminating about life on their favorite brick wall. They reminisce about recent events, and what they have learned. And even though Linus still holds out hope for next year, you know that good ol’ Chuck will be there to console him the next time he ends up disappointed.
How Did It Come About, Charlie Brown?
It’s the Great Pumpkin was the third Peanuts special and the second holiday special. It aired just under a year after A Charlie Brown Christmas, yet even in that short amount of time you can already see a difference in how the team of Peanuts creator Charles M. Schultz, Director Bill Melendez, and Executive Producer Lee Mendelson were approaching these specials.
The Great Pumpkin has less of a focused narrative than A Charlie Brown Christmas. The main plot is interspersed with several comedic bits and gags seemingly lifted straight from the comic strip. This could have been a way to save time by recycling old content. Or perhaps it was an intentional way to capitalize on the popularity of the comic strip. The end result is that The Great Pumpkin tends to wander a bit more than the Christmas special.
How Did People Respond, Charlie Brown?
The Halloween special also has a darker, more melancholy tone than its predecessor. While the Christmas special definitely has plenty of sad, reflective moments that mirror the feelings many adults experience around the holidays, The Great Pumpkin has a bit more of an edge to it, bordering on meanness. It is just a bit more sarcastic than other Peanuts specials. The other children are just slightly meaner to Charlie Brown than normal.
For example, in the trick or treating scenes, Charlie Brown gets rocks instead of candy at house after house. Schultz had originally suggested just one rock, but Melendez pushed for three. The story goes that Charlie Brown’s refrain of “I got a rock” really disturbed viewers. So, they sent in a flood of candy intended to make it up to the hapless hero.
What’s It All Mean, Charlie Brown?
One reason for this slightly darker tone could relate to Schultz’s own personal feelings and beliefs at the time. Some view Linus’ unwavering belief in The Great Pumpkin and eagerness to share that belief with Sally or anyone else that will listen as a metaphor for religious faith. Linus’ struggles to maintain his belief in opposition to the opinions and views of nearly everyone around him are all too familiar to practitioners of any religion. His long nights spent waiting for a divine being to grace him with his presence and offer up bountiful rewards for his service in maintaining the most sincere of pumpkin patches does all seem ripe with religious parallels and references.
However, Schultz himself seemed to disregard these theories. Instead, he asserted that he just thought it was funny for a character to confuse Halloween with Christmas. Though perhaps it is a mix of both or Schultz was being less than honest with himself. His work was often laced with his own complicated feelings about faith and religion.
In A Charlie Brown Christmas, the message is one of hope and goodwill. But It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown has a more somber, existential tone. It feels more like an introspection on the uncertainty that often accompanies faith, and the resolve needed to maintain beliefs in the face of adversity.
Happy Halloween, Charlie Brown
Whether you buy into these theories on the meaning of It’s the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown or not, there’s no denying its popularity. Fifty years after its original airing, countless families continue to enjoy watching the beloved special. It has become an integral part of celebrating Halloween. And unlike The Great Pumpkin himself, seeing the special air on TV is something you can count on every year. Alongside things like trick or treating and dressing up in extravagant costumes, the holiday wouldn’t feel the same without it.
On that note, let’s close out with one of the most memorable moments of the special.
It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown is available to stream here, or check your local TV listings for showtimes.