I have loved the creation of Charles M. Schulz’s Peanuts ever since I can remember. Growing up in the 70’s, I was a ready-made fan of Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Linus, and the rest of the gang. Before I was old enough to even read the comic strip, I was delighted by the holiday television specials. My favorite has always been It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.
I wrote this the fall we observed the 50th anniversary since it first premiered on October 27th, 1966. When I was a kid, I remember racing home from the local annual Halloween parade to get back home and change into warm pajamas before it started. I’d nest myself in the living room beanbag, empty my sack of parade goodies, and watch this beloved balloon headed gang celebrate and falter through Halloween. I sat back with a fuzzy green (not blue) security blanket over my lap and enjoyed the animated masterpiece broadcast to me and millions of tuned in viewers.
Back then I laughed at all the jokes and silly voices of Snoopy, enjoyed the colorful scenery, and watched with the same exuberance for Halloween as the characters. Nothing, except the Coca Cola and Dolly Madison commercials, changes year after year. The Great Pumpkin still won’t show, Charlie Brown still gets a treat bag full of rocks, Lucy still pulls the football away, and Sally still misses her first night of tricks-or-treats.
Whoa! Are we gluttons for pumpkin punishment? There are and always have been letdowns in this episode, but back then I didn’t think about that and a somber mood and atmosphere. Good grief, it was just a cartoon and I loved watching it.
Back then I did not dissect the episode’s plot points, character arcs, universal themes, unresolved issues, or author’s purpose. Back then I didn’t know I’d grow up to be a nerdy English teacher who overanalyzes literature and films in this way (and has fun doing so).
After recently reading many blogs and articles about Charles M. Schulz, The Peanuts Gang, and The Great Pumpkin, I decided to give this classic a “close reading” and develop a deeper understanding and interpretation of the Halloween special as a whole. Beyond tradition, I wondered if there was truly any merit to airing this for the past fifty years and if it should be broadcast for another fifty.
One particular article, “It’s Time to Retire, Charlie Brown,” stuck with me and really made me think. Buzz Bishop, a popular social media writer and broadcaster, authored this post in 2012 on Babble. Bishop criticized the Peanuts characters in The Great Pumpkin for being demeaning bullies and claimed “there’s nothing of value for children in the show.” It made me think and wonder if Charlie Brown was indeed inappropriate and too melancholy for kids.
Bishop’s words caused me to recall how my then three-year-old daughter reacted to her first viewing of The Great Pumpkin. She disapproved of Charlie Brown’s messed up ghost costume and was mortified that he got rocks instead of treats.
“Why rocks?” she worried.
“Because we don’t always get what we want or expect,” was my quick response. I’m a realist who doesn’t make rock candy out of rocks. This didn’t make her feel better, but I didn’t turn off the show. I addressed her disappointment and was actually satisfied that she felt sorry for Charlie Brown. She was a mere toddler already expressing empathy and sharing her hurt feelings for another’s misfortune, albeit a cartoon character. *That’s a good thing, right?
Recently, I wasn’t so sure. What if there was something I was missing in this and the other Peanuts holiday classics due to being such a Snoopy-groupie? What if I ignored some inexcusable animated cruelty that was camouflaged by autumn colors, kissing beagles, and sincere pumpkin patches (whatever that means)? What if Vince Guaraldi’s piano scores merely kept me entranced in a merciless world? I needed to know, so I teamed up with over a hundred others to figure it out.
Today in my high school English classes I changed my lesson plans and showed this infamous Great Pumpkin cartoon. My College Prep English 9 freshmen and Reading the Movies upperclassmen were required to write a reader response journal of what they viewed and then we discussed it. They were required to write down their questions, connections, responses, and predictions.
I told them about the blog I read in which the father turned off the show due to the characters’ bullying and “stupid, blockhead” name-calling. I also revealed how my own child was upset, but I played it until the end. While viewing, I asked these teens to think about that and its fifty year longevity on the air. In their response, kids also had to reveal what merit, if any, there was in showing this holiday “classic” or if it was time to put The Great Pumpkin to rest (even though he never shows up).
Needless to say, my students were elated with my revised lesson, and every single student contributed to the discussion and turned in a response. It was one of the most productive teaching days all year. Here are a dozen student observations, statements, and conclusions:
- Charlie Brown is the strong, silent type. He doesn’t argue and fight, even when given reason to retaliate.
- When Charlie Brown does get upset or embarrassed, he quickly moves on. He is not a grudge holder.
- I feel bad for Charlie Brown.
- These kids talk like adults.
- Lucy is so bossy, but I guess when your parents and teachers are merely trombone noises, someone has to step up to the plate.
- Lucy is genuinely caring, like when she gets Linus trick-or-treat candy and brings him inside from the pumpkin patch at 4:00 am.
- No one makes fun of Pig Pen even though he is dirty and probably smelly.
- Linus has a very strong faith. Even though he is criticized for his passion for The Great Pumpkin, an unpopular mythical holiday character, he stands firm and will do so for the rest of his Linus life.
- Snoopy is the most loyal friend to Charlie Brown, man’s best friend.
- Sally is struck by puppy love. Sadly, Linus is too involved with attracting The Great Pumpkin to his sincere pumpkin patch to notice the cute little blonde.
- Sally has a right to rant at Linus. Even he knows it when he says, “Nothing [compares] to the fury of a woman who has been cheated out of trick-or-treats.” Puppy love needs fed treats too!
- Snoopy walks on two legs.
Here is a list of “What IF’s?” I asked during our discussion.
- What if Lucy didn’t pull the football away from Charlie Brown?
- What if Charlie Brown kicked Lucy after she pulled the football away?
- What if Charlie Brown got a golden nugget instead of the third rock?
- What if the Great Pumpkin actually showed up?
- What if Linus stopped believing in the Great Pumpkin?
- What if there were parents in the show?
- What if Linus forced his beliefs on everyone that made fun of him?
We had a mature, scholarly, and fun conversation. Students said the seven scenarios would ruin the story and take away its worth. Ultimately, the majority of kids felt that beyond being a viewing tradition, that It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown has value for people of all ages and should continue to be aired yearly.
Teenagers, are no strangers to bullying, and my students did not see the Peanuts explicitly supporting it. In fact, they thought, exposing the ridicule of Charlie Brown and Linus, gives people a chance to see that this was wrong. Kids can be nasty, and so can adults. That’s a reality highlighted in this animated world.
The universal themes we uncovered were:
- Keep the faith.
- Never lose hope.
- Don’t give up.
- It is what it is.
- Hang in there.
In conclusion, I’m pleased to report our findings and that I can keep being a guilt free, faithful fan. *So can my now teenage daughter who is not a bully and is still compassionate for the underdog who gets rocks.
As ugly as people can be to each other, I hope, like Charlie Brown, that people have it in them to shine and be better tomorrow than they are today. Charlie Brown deserves a high-five (or four, depending on the artist’s scene) for his respect, calmness, and peaceable ways. He could have been a vengeful fella, yet he stood firmly as Good Ol’ Charlie Brown, whether he knew it or not.
Happy Halloween! Let’s indulge in a York Peppermint Patty in praise of fifty years of It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.