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TV Legends: The Secret Origin of the Great Pumpkin

by  in CBR Exclusives, TV News, TV Comment
TV Legends: The Secret Origin of the Great Pumpkin

"IT'S THE GREAT PUMPKIN, CHARLIE BROWN" - The classic animated Halloween-themed PEANUTS special, "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown," created by late cartoonist Charles M. Schulz, airs WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 15 (8:30-9:00 p.m., ET) on the ABC Television Network. (©1966 United Feature Syndicate Inc.)

TV URBAN LEGEND: The Great Pumpkin is a satire of religious evangelism.

This year is the fiftieth anniversary of the classic animated TV special, “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown”, the third TV special starring the characters from Charles Schulz’s “Peanuts” comic strip. The characters had proven so popular in their appearances during TV advertisements that they had graduated to TV specials, and the initial TV special, “A Charlie Brown Christmas”, was such a success that the networks soon not only wanted a sequel, but after a baseball-themed second special, they specifically wanted another holiday-themed TV special. Schulz agreed, and decided to do a Halloween-themed special (animated TV specials in general were rare at the time, so ones specifically about Halloween were ever rarer) based on a bit that he had invented in the “Peanuts” strip in 1959 – the Great Pumpkin.

The Great Pumpkin is a holiday figure, like the Easter Bunny or Santa Claus, that only Linus van Pelt seems to believe in. Every year, leading up to Halloween, he writes a letter to the Great Pumpkin asking for gifts and on Halloween night itself, he awaits the arrival of the Great Pumpkin in a pumpkin patch, only to invariably be disappointed when the Great Pumpkin does not show. Undeterred, Linus simply vows that next year will be the year that he finally meets the Great Pumpkin.

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His belief in the Great Pumpkin leads to other ridiculing him, which inspired his classic phrase (which originated in the strip but made its way into the TV special, as well, “There are three things I have learned never to discuss with people: religion, politics, and the Great Pumpkin.”).

The TV special (written by Schulz, produced by Lee Mendelson and directed by Bill Melendez) follows Linus on his journey, only this time Charlie Brown’s little sister, Sally, is along for the ride, as she is so infatuated with Linus that she passes up trick-or-treating to go with him to the pumpkin patch. For a moment there, it even seems like the Great Pumpkin will arrive, but it turned out to just be Charlie Brown’s dog, Snoopy, dressed in his World War I pilot gear. Sally is distraught when it turned out that she missed out on trick-or-treating for nothing. The special ends with Linus steadfast in his belief that next year, the Great Pumpkin finally will arrive.

The Great Pumpkin is clearly meant satirically, but over the years, people have been confused about just what it was satirizing. One popular take on the Great Pumpkin is that Schulz is satirizing Christian evangelism, as Linus’ faith makes everyone around him uneasy and in the end, he has nothing to show for his fervent beliefs. However, another directly alternate take on the subject is that the Great Pumpkin is a satire of the way that society treats people with faith. Linus gets kicked around by everyone for believing in something that he can’t prove exists, but he is strong enough to keep on believing without something that he can outright prove to other people is real.

Schulz was a religious man, so it is not unrealistic to believe that there was a specific religious intent for the Great Pumpkin (after all, there are a lot of religious points made in “A Charlie Brown Christmas”), but as it turns out, the satire was a bit of a simpler one. As explained in the book, “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown: The Making of a Television Classic”, Mendelson and Schulz recalled a conversation that the three of them (Mendelson, Schulz and Bill Melendez) had about the Great Pumpkin while they were figuring out the plot of the Halloween special that they were doing (it had not yet occurred to them to make the show ABOUT the Great Pumpkin, not even right after this conversation).

Schulz: You know, I’ve always been kind of ambivalent about Santa Claus.

Mendelson and Melendez: Santa Claus?

Schulz: That’s right. First of all, we forget that there are hundreds of thousands of poor kids in this world who are lucky if they get even one or two presents at Christmas time. And here they’ve heard so much about Santa Claus and all the gifts he delivers. It must be very hard on a lot of families…a lot of kids. And, secondly, when a kid finally finds out that there is no Santa Claus, he must wonder how many other things he has been told that are not true.

Now I may be way off on all this Santa Claus business, and it’s not a big deal I guess. But the Great Pumpkin is really a kind of satire on Santa Claus, because Linus of course writes for gifts and expects to get them. And when the Great Pumpkin doesn’t come, Linus is crushed. It shows that you can’t always get what you hoped for but you can still survive…and you can still keep trying. Linus never gives up, just like Charlie Brown.

Eventually, they decided to adapt the Great Pumpkin story into the special and television history was made. But I think that that is a pretty succinct description of what Schulz was intending to do with the Great Pumpkin. Enough so that I’m going with the legend as…

STATUS: False

Be sure to check out my archive of TV Legends Revealed for more urban legends about the world of television. Check here for specific legends involving animated TV shows.

Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is bcronin@legendsrevealed.com.

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