Looking Back At IT'S THE GREAT PUMPKIN, CHARLIE BROWN - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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“Good grief!” says Tony.
How does a tradition… become a tradition?

At its most basic, a tradition is just a thing that was done once, but that gave people enough good feelings to do it again. And again…

Eventually, the good feelings don’t even have to be there – people will do things BECAUSE they’re a tradition, whether they have any reality or good feelings left to give.

If this sounds like a subtle dig at a cartoon special first released in 1966 and that has become a Hallowe’en tradition in households all across America, relax – you might find someone to take a pumpkin spiced dump on It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, but it’s not gonna be me.

The point is that philosophical questions of why we do the things we do are actually at the very HEART of It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.

For those who’ve lived this far under a Peanuts-repelling rock, It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown is the Peanuts riff on Hallowe’en as experienced by kids in small town America throughout the Sixties and pretty much to some extent still today. For people whose Peanuts-repelling rock has been even bigger, Peanuts is a cartoon series by Charles M Schultz that first ran in newspapers and then became an animated wonder in the hands of Bill Melendez, that has survived at least into the second fifth of the 21st century.

One of the reasons it’s survived is because while it always stays true to the archetypes of Sixties small-town kid-life, you can also see some fairly grown-up thoughts and positions in the reasons why the Peanuts gang do the things they do. There’s some satire in Peanuts which can touch you on deeper levels – and then of course, there’s the fact that it’s just plain funny.

The Peanuts gang gave us Snoopy, after all, the most imaginative beagle in history. But Peanuts is about much MORE than Snoopy, and most of the characters have a unique philosophical stance.

That’s probably never better realised than it is in It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.

The set-up is simple. It’s Hallowe’en and the gang are preparing to celebrate in their own way. There will be trick-or-treating, there will be a Hallowe’en party.
In this particular story, the focus is mostly on the two central brother and sister duos of the Peanuts gang, Lucy and Linus Van Pelt, and Charlie and Sally Brown.

The central drama is that while everybody’s going trick-or-treating and moving on to the Hallowe’en party, Linus Van Pelt is absenting himself from all the group fun. Because Linus – who, tellingly, never goes anywhere without his comfort blanket to maintain his emotional equilibrium – is a True Believer in a Hallowe’en tradition that had never been a thing in America before him, and isn’t a thing after him either, but which speaks to the heart of a lot of the American Dream.

He believes in The Great Pumpkin – literally, a giant, sentient pumpkin that rises from the pumpkin patch on Hallowe’en and distributes toys of all the “good children.” Appropriately, not to say heartbreakingly, the Great Pumpkin appears out of whichever pumpkin patch in the country radiates not the most wealth, not with the most material advantage, but the most sincerity. In a country where sincere belief is often held to be at least as important as verifiable fact in achieving one’s dreams, the Great Pumpkin rewards the humble hermit, rather than the masses with their heads turned by candy and parties.

And so, Linus believes in it.

He writes letters to The Great Pumpkin – polite and well-thought-out letters – and when Charlie Brown (the perennial loser of the gang) asks him when he’s going to stop believing in this nonsense, Linus’ retort is big on dignity, while puncturing the idea that there’s only one valid way to direct belief in a gift-giving seasonal anthropomorphic character. He will lose faith in The Great Pumpkin, he says, “when you give up that fellow who dresses all in red and says ‘Ho! Ho! Ho!’”

Beautiful and crushing in a single line – the idea that there’s only one right way to live, demolished in a heartbeat by the True Believer.
There are more, equally powerful moments in It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. Lucy Van Pelt, the most switched-on but casually cruel kid in the neighborhood, is utterly weary of her “stupid” little brother and his belief in The Great Pumpkin. But even though she finds it intensely humiliating to ask, she nevertheless requests additional candy when they go trick or treating, so that her brother might not lose out on treats by virtue of his philosophical position. She doesn’t simply share her own haul, because after all, she’s a kid, and it’s not right that SHE should be made to suffer for her brother’s pumpkin-based religious fervour. But she will pass the cost of that behaviour on to the ‘consumer’ – the people whose doors she knocks. Because he may be stupid, but he’s her brother, darn it.

And when, later in the story, Linus lies cold and shivering in the pumpkin patch, having failed for one more year to bring The Great Pumpkin to him by the power of his sincerity, it’s Lucy, the arch-rationalist, who puts on her coat and hat, goes out alone into the pumpkin patch, finds her brother, supports him all the way home, and puts him in a warm bed.

Family, says Schultz – they might think you’re nuts, but if you’re lucky, they’ll always have your back.

It’s not of course necessarily a truth, but it does at least stand as an American aspiration, and show that even Lucy Van Pelt can feel that togetherness, while still maintaining that her hermit brother is an idiot.
We say ‘even’ Lucy Van Pelt can feel this familial pull, because most of the time, Lucy comes across as a nasty piece of work. Not only does she promise to hold a football for Charlie Brown (in one of the running gags of the Peanuts series), and then relentlessly pull it away so Charlie Brown falls on his butt in the mud, but in It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, she voices every unpopular kid’s worst fears, telling Charlie Brown that his invitation to his first ever party must be a mistake, and that he’s been wrongly added to the guest list, because after all, no-one would KNOWINGLY invite him to their party.

Today, we’d probably call it gaslighting and bullying. Back in 1966, it was just mean girls trying to teach you not to believe in yourself.

Charlie Brown goes on to succinctly demonstrate the power of naïve self-belief in It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, not only by taking Lucy’s word when she hands him a signed document promising that this time, she won’t pull away his football (We won’t spoiler it for you as to whether she does or not!), but also by the result of his trick or treating.

When all the kids tally up the candy and glittering prizes they’ve accumulated from their night of trick or treating, it turns out that at each house, Charlie Brown has accumulated not sweet treats, but rocks. Time after time, house after house, despite his own sincerity and costume-making and buying-in to the collective norm of group behaviour, he still ends up with just a bagful of rocks.

But it’s Sally Brown who has probably the biggest let-down on Hallowe’en. It’s the first year that Charlie Brown’s little sister is deemed big enough to go trick-or-treating. She’ll have candy, and dress up, and fun, and then get to attend a Hallowe’en party - it’s gonna be great!

Except Sally, in her young heart, has a crush on Linus, the True Believer. So when the chance comes, she keeps him company in the Pumpkin Patch, and when the others turn up to ritually ridicule him for spending Hallowe’en night in the patch, rather than chasing the glittering treats with them, she stands up for him, declaring her own belief in The Great Pumpkin. Linus knows what he’s talking about, she yells at their backs. The Great Pumpkin is real!

By the end of the night though, when The Great Pumpkin has failed to appear, she rounds on her visionary, decrying the fact that she spent her first trick-or-treat night freezing in a pumpkin patch with a lunatic, and declaring she will sue him for loss of treats.

It’s an additional kick in the pants of course that while Linus has Lucy to gather extra treats for him, Sally Brown has only her ineffectual older brother to compensate her, and he somehow ended up with not a single treat in his bagful of rocks. The unvarnished truth of capitalism there, laid bare by The Great Pumpkin.
There are other moments of joy in It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown – and if they seem a little crowbarred in, you have to undo a notch on your Seriousness Belt. Hallowe’en dress-up is as much excuse as we need for Snoopy to don the costume of a World War I flying ace, piloting his kennel through the dark and stormy skies, shooting down enemies, and having to make his way home from “behind enemy lines.”

That also gives us an excuse to check in with Schroeder, the blond-haired Beethoven obsessive with his toy piano, who gives Snoopy a medley of World War I tunes that turns the dog alternately into a proud, patriotic soldier and a weeping, snivelling mess as the tunes switch from It’s A Long Way To Tipperary to the heartbreaking tale of love destroyed by war, The Roses Of Picardy.

The Snoopy and Schroeder section is an odd little aside, but it adds pathos (and a dash of remembrance of people lost, than which there is little more appropriate for Hallowe’en) to an otherwise strongly focused story.

And how does that story end? With differences of philosophical opinion, naturally. Charlie Brown and Linus, together, and mulling the consequences of their respective Hallowe’ens. Charlie Brown is mystified that after he did everything as right as he could do, he only got rocks. The season has betrayed him with its glittering promises, and revealed his place in the natural order of things as a loser.

Meanwhile, Linus is initially tight-lipped about another year without seeing The Great Pumpkin. “Well, don’t worry,” says Charlie Brown, “I’ve done some pretty stupid things in my time too.”

At which, Linus flies into a rage at the blasphemy against The Great Pumpkin, and the credit roll over his yelled assertions that next year, the Pumpkin will come, that he will be even more sincere. Burned by experience and failure in his sincerity and reward, he nevertheless doubles down on his belief in the Pumpkin, and swears to do better, and to make everybody see that The Great Pumpkin is real.

You can analyse the guts out of It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, its philosophical stances and reactions to disappointment – Charlie Brown’s, Sally Brown’s, and Linus Van Pelt’s. People certainly have – there are actual published books about the differences of religious and culture-religious behaviour in Peanuts.

Or alternatively, you can just slip it into your player, or download it, or stream it as you prefer, and revel in the kid-world it portrays, the philosophical positions it delivers, and the endless fun of Snoopy and the gang. Over 50 years since it was nominated for an Emmy award, It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown remains both sweet and caustic, philosophical and kind. It aired on ABC over Hallowe’en every year from 1966 to 2019, and then was taken up by Apple TV. It still speaks to us today, after repeated re-viewings for over five decades.

Now that’s a real Hallowe’en tradition. If you need me, I’ll be out in the pumpkin patch. Watching Snoopy. On my phone…

Tony lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk

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