Every other Wednesday in The Kiddy Pool, Erin Newcomb confronts one of many issues that parents must deal with related to popular culture.
It’s been fifty years since It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown! aired, and the now-canonical holiday special is no less relevant today than it was five decades ago. Although the story is named for the most-famous member of the Peanuts gang, the star of this show is Linus Van Pelt, complete with trusty blanket and faith wise beyond his years. While most of the characters don cut-up sheets as ghost costumes that still manage to illustrate their personalities, Linus commits to spending Halloween night in the pumpkin patch, awaiting the elusiveLinus wants more from holidays; he wants holy days. Great Pumpkin. Only Sally keeps him company, more out of adoration than real belief, wavering between threats and devotion to her crush.
Charlie Brown collects rocks instead of candy and attends a party where he’s really not wanted, Snoopy travels time and space as the World War I flying ace, but the central story that serves as the meat of the special is Linus’ faith. He explains the Great Pumpkin like this:
Each year, the Great Pumpkin rises out of the pumpkin patch that he thinks is the most sincere. He’s gotta pick this one. He’s got to. I don’t see how a pumpkin patch can be more sincere than this one. You can look around and there’s not a sign of hypocrisy. Nothing but sincerity as far as the eye can see.
Mocked by his peers (particularly his scathing big sister Lucy), Linus holds fast to his pumpkin patch. He writes letters to the Great Pumpkin that prompt even Snoopy’s derision, and when he tries to persuade his best friend to see the parallels between Santa Claus and the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown chalks up their disagreement to “denominational differences.” The story is not the sacred in opposition to the secular but a striving to find the sacred within the secular.
That’s not to say that the secular subsumes the sacred but that all our searchings for God are inevitably bound to humanity. Culture is our medium, just as the human body and a particular time and place were Christ’s medium, and even as Christ himself is the Mediator. We live out our beliefs (or fail to) in the in-betweens because we can’t access the pure Spirit here and now, not while we’re still Spirit-filled beings bound in all-too-human bodies. Linus is the character who speaks up for the Gospel in 1965’s A Charlie Brown Christmas, quoting directly from Luke. He sees the crass commercialism and strife and responds with the true meaning of the Nativity.
That message from Linus echoes throughout the Great Pumpkin special as well. Linus wants more from holidays; he wants holy days. And while his vision of the Great Pumpkin is akin to Saint Nick, the emphasis on sincerity and avoiding hypocrisy is telling. For Linus, it’s not about being good but about being true. It’s not so much a pitting of one holiday against another (those “denominational differences”) but of restoring the holiness to our days, especially our holy days.
Instead of the Great Pumpkin, Linus and Sally get spooked by Snoopy rising out of the pumpkin patch. Sally absconds, but Linus remains steadfast at his post, until Lucy fetches him in the middle of the night and puts him to bed. It’s a rare moment of tenderness between the Van Pelt siblings, one that softens Lucy’s character. At the end of the film, Charlie Brown tries to comfort his friend by mentioning the “stupid” things he’s done, and Linus sputters a rant that remains faithful to the Great Pumpkin. As the credits roll, Linus stays sincere. He vacillated for that aching instant in the pumpkin patch, but at the story’s end, we know he’ll be in that pumpkin patch again next year.
In 1972’s You’re Not Elected, Charlie Brown, Linus threatens his candidacy by invoking the Great Pumpkin during his campaign speech. The audience dissolves in laughter, still mocking in the face of Linus’ sincere faith. But decades later, viewers still long to be in that pumpkin patch with Linus. In “Aaugh! 10 Facts about It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown!” Jake Rosen reports that, “Talking to the Schenectady Gazette in 1968, [Charles] Schulz said that since the special began airing two years earlier, he had received a number of letters from academics wondering where the Great Pumpkin story had originated. . . . Schulz suggested they broach the topic with Linus instead.” Linus’s answer, then as now, would no doubt speak to his sincerity, and that’s a truth that stands the test of time, in spite of our “denominational differences.”