When Charles Schulz first devised his running holiday gags involving an eager child’s confused blending of Halloween and Christmas in October 1959, he never dreamed that the myth of the Great Pumpkin would become one of the most beloved and amusing elements of the Fall holidays. Like so many landmark Peanuts routines, what began as a simple joke about a seemingly quaint misunderstanding would eventually grow to sizable proportions throughout the decades, producing a number of memorable antics as well as some particularly pointed commentary on the values and risks of personal perseverance and popular scorn.
Five of the first seven “Great Pumpkin” strips reveal Linus Van Pelt spreading the joyful gospel that will eventually leave him humiliated as “a victim of false doctrine.”
From then on, Schulz deftly milked the joke every season, focusing mainly on Linus’ unsinkable faith in his own personal legend of a charitable pumpkin-claus who brings toys and treats to good little kiddos awaiting his arrival in the truest, most earnest, and sincere pumpkin patch nestled somewhere in the Great American breadbasket. Playing harbinger to his Halloween hero, Linus’ tone could shift from zealous and prophetic to desperate and dejected, but still he spoke his truth and believed always in his misfit vision of the holiday. Now his legend is ours as well.
Of course the 1966 TV special, one of many award-winning adaptations that launched Schulz’s Peanuts gang to worldwide fame, would provide the most resonant and popular of all Great Pumpkin routines. Culled largely from the comic strips, and lovingly tweaked for television by Schulz himself and long-time producer, Bill Melendez, the CBS special, like its Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Easter counterparts, became a seminal element of American holiday media, and its yearly broadcast remains a beloved tradition shared by generations of viewers and fans. It’s safe to say that, ironically, much of the media-driven world now sits eagerly each year with Linus in his pumpkin patch.
Like Schulz’s tree-eating kite, Charlie Brown and Lucy’s perennial football foibles, and the poor Peanuts kids’ eternal inability to win baseball games – Linus’ yearly disappointment after the Great Pumpkin’s failure to appear makes grand, operatic comedy of frustration and regret. Linus’ agony over another year wasted, his sister’s disgust at her little brother’s unshakable delusion, Snoopy’s perpetual knack for appearing at just the right time to give the poor languishing martyr some hope, and especially smitten Sally’s endless threats of litigation and restitution for a night’s worth of lost candy all frame the Great Pumpkin as a fairly piquant allegory of the complexities of faith, fun, and friendship in America.
The Great Pumpkin, like so many of Schulz’s signature themes and routines, remains as fresh and funny as it is focused on a fundamental quandary in our national debates around allegiance, faith, and belief.
In fact, as the years progressed, a greater portion of Schulz’s Great Pumpkin strips became extended discussions of how Linus’ supposedly misguided, yet undaunted conviction could bring up surprising realizations and meaningful epiphanies among his friends and family.
Here then, are several wonderful celebrations of our eternal need to believe, idealize, and hope, as well as our perverse urge to discourage, debunk, and debase all who wonder over beauty and bounty in their gardens of sincerity and trust.
As these samples show, there is something about the Great Pumpkin, and Linus’ unflappable insistence on its authenticity that eventually infiltrates even the most callous and calculating of hearts in Peanutsland. Though many tease, test, and even threaten legal action against the dreamy believer, the Great Pumpkin tradition spreads hope and hilarity, sparks free and forthright denominational debates, and even allows for one of the strip’s best gags in its twilight years. Who, after all, cannot laugh at a beagle driving a Zamboni?
As we move through what promises to become a very contentious and contrary Fall of politics, polemics, and potential mayhem, we might thank Schulz and Linus for their prognostications surrounding the Great Pumpkin, King of All Comic Strip Cucurbits. This Halloween, may we all find room for not only joys or toys, but also the unerring sincerity and strength that drive Linus Van Pelt’s devotion to his own personal perspectives on fantasy, comedy, kindness, and fun.