48 years on, the peanuts special is the pinnacle of a genre.
I’m fascinated by Halloween, and not just because it’s my favorite holiday – a lone 24 hour period (and month-long lead-up) wherein my ever-present affections for monster-movies and other macabre concepts were “validated” by the rest of the world around me.
The history and makeup of the celebration’s modern incarnation is almost a “Reverse Christmas” in that it’s a hugely-commercial annual celebration whose offbeat collection of “traditions” (most of them barely a century old – if that) largely grow from the ground up to be absorbed by the commerce-culture, rather than the other way around: Particularly in the United States, Christmas is the time of year that Coca-Cola, Wal-Mart, Hallmark and the “family togetherness” entertainment/industrial-complex tells the public what they’re supposed to want; while during Halloween Season “we the people” declare our fears, fascinations and fetishes so that said complex can catch-up to them.
And there’s no single piece of seasonally-themed art or entertainment that “get’s” the identity of Halloween as The People’s Consumption-Based Holiday as It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown! It’s a simple story, like most of the better Peanuts specials – built on equal parts sincere, honest affection for certain aspects of children and childhood but also a blunt admission of the failings of people and their world.
In case you need the refresher: The story takes place over roughly 24 hours from the morning of Halloween to the morning directly after, following three distinct story-tracks built around three main characters’ experiences during the holiday: Charlie Brown has been invited to a post-Trick-or-Treating Halloween party – by mistake. Snoopy is absorbed in a long-term bit of play-acting built around his WWI Flying Ace costume. But Linus, for a change, has the “title” storyline: He’s utterly caught-up in a set of Holiday rituals involving a Santa Claus-like figure called The Great Pumpkin – a tradition that only he seems to acknowledge (and likely created.)
All three stories end in letdown, one way or another: Charlie Brown is humiliated both Trick-or-Treating (people give him rocks instead of candy, possibly because he somehow cut too many holes into his ghost costume) and at the party (Lucy and her girlfriends use his round bald head to practice jack o’lantern faces). Snoopy “loses” a fantasy dogfight with The Red Baron and imagines himself sneaking across enemy territory to the party. Linus actually manages to get Sally to wait in the pumpkin patch for The Great Pumpkin with him… only to have His failure to appear be enough to finally break (however briefly) Sally’s crush-spawned need to put up with him. He faints and passes out in the patch, with Lucy left to drag him back home and put him to bed. The next day, Charlie Brown tries to engage him one letdown man to another, only for Linus to rebuke him: He’s more committed to his “faith” than ever, figuring that he must have committed a faux-pas at some point leading to his denial.
When you parse it out like that, it sounds pretty depressing. It sort of is. So was the Christmas special that started the Peanuts/holidays trend, though: Most of the action is Brown alternately crapping on the commercialization of the holiday or his friends for not sharing his angst. In the end he’s liberated not by faith (everyone forgets that the famous moment where Linus recites a Biblical passage as “The True Meaning of Christmas” – an idea conjured by Charles Schulz himself, who was more religious in the 60s than he was later on – doesn’t make Brown feel any better, really) or by self-determination, but by his friends showing him symbolic compromise.
But part of what always made Peanuts so influential is that it understood that disappointment is one of the fundamental emotions of childhood – that “growing up” and “living on after disappointment” are effectively the same thing. And no holiday is better for illustrating that than Halloween, since (at least in the rural/suburban American version where Pumpkin takes place) there isn’t a Christmas-style “true meaning” underneath all the more tangible stuff that otherwise defines it: Your Jack O’Lantern starts rotting the moment you’ve carved it. Your costume never looks as a scary as you thought it would. Too much candy will make you sick. And when it’s light out the next day all the decorations and setups that looked either terrifying or just “cool” are revealed as just so much plastic and cardboard.
But for a few dark hours at night, Halloween produces an “aura” that makes it all come together into something grand and magical (visualized in the way that nighttime color palette turns the Peanuts’ neighborhood into a pop-art dreamscape – just look at the night sky in the pullback where Linus waxes poetic about the “sincerity” of his pumpkin patch) and all Charlie Brown and friends are trying to do is eke as much actual joy out of it as they can, however they can. There’s a resigned annoyance in Brown’s reaction to Linus’ continued delusion at the finale, almost as though he knows that not only will his blanket-toting buddy slip right back into this nonsense next year, so will he.
There are, of course, other things more commonly cited to praise about this unassuming little cartoon: How the authenticity of using (mostly) real children to voice the child characters makes them so enormously affecting, even if some of the tykes are obviously not so much “performing” as reciting (or reading.) How Vince Guaraldi’s soft-jazz scores for these specials make them seem so fresh and experimental even decades later. What a testament it is to the power of animation (and abstraction!) that rendering characters as bulbous-headed children scampering through watercolored backdrops is all it takes to turn a series of philosophical discussions and post-modern laments into a “beloved family classic.” How Charlie Brown’s ability to move through his life without collapsing into a heap of despair (though, yes, he comes close in Snoopy Come Home.)
But The Great Pumpkin gets that repeating cycle of childhood experience – anticipation, disappointment, growth – and understands why Halloween is so uniquely suited to exploring it and finding the positive in it. And that’s why hundreds of thousands of people this week will pull out old DVDs, or older VHS tapes, or dig through TV listings, or streaming-service searches, or whatever other avenue there is to be explored in order to watch a Halloween cartoon about kids (and a dog) who get failed costumes, rocks instead of candy and lament that their (more or less) god has forsaken them – not in Gethsemene, but in the center of a pumpkin patch.
Because it understands.