Charlie Brown hesitates, his curlicued eyebrow knit in exasperated worry. "You just want me to come running up to kick that ball, so you can pull it away and see me land flat on my back and kill myself."
But Lucy insists she'll keep the ball steady, and as her angelic smile creeps sideways, Charlie Brown can't help himself. He goes running full throttle after the ball, almost lets himself enjoy it — and then he falls flat on his back, just like he knew he would.
And thus, the tone is set for It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.
This is the first animated Peanuts special to include the iconic football-snatching gag from the comic strip, and both the special and the gag have remained cultural touchstones since their debuts 50 years ago. Charlie Brown running after that ball, even when he knows it will probably end badly, sums up the entire Peanuts canon in a single scene. He wants to believe in this victory, he needs to believe in this victory, even though he knows as well as we do that he isn't likely to get it. But he keeps going anyway.
It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown has aired every year since it debuted in 1966. It had been a year since A Charlie Brown Christmas became a national sensation, and CBS wanted to keep the Peanuts goodwill going with another holiday special that could air every year. Rather than tackling Thanksgiving — which they eventually did in 1973 — they opted to adapt one of Charles Schulz's strips in which Linus waits all Halloween night for the Great Pumpkin to arrive. The special did as well as CBS had hoped, and remains the most enduring Halloween television special to this day. (ABC bought the rights to the Peanuts specials in 2000.)
At its core, though, It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown isn't about Halloween at all. It's a Christmas special wearing a Halloween costume — and that's exactly what makes it so good.
The Great Pumpkin explicitly draws from Christmas traditions to evoke emotional responses
Every year, television shows churn out Halloween episodes. These are mostly comedies, with some, like The Simpsons' "Treehouse of Horror" series, wringing laughs out of horror movie tropes. Others use costumes to say something about their characters, or just take advantage of the party-prone holiday to have some slapstick fun.
The Great Pumpkin barely puts any effort into the characters' costumes at all. Lucy, Peanuts' resident mean girl, goes trick-or-treating as a witch. Most of the others go trick-or-treating as ghosts. (Charlie Brown, of course, messes his up by cutting too many holes.)
The one notable exception is Snoopy, who debuts his World War I fighter pilot alter ego for the first time onscreen with a bombastic sequence where he looks down at a burning world from the top of his doghouse.
The enduring story of The Great Pumpkin, however, deliberately calls upon Christmas traditions. Lucy's earnest little brother Linus sits in a pumpkin patch every Halloween to greet the Great Pumpkin, whom he believes rises up every year to bring presents to all the good children of the world. (Sound familiar?)
Every year Linus waits for the Great Pumpkin, and every year the other kids give him grief. Even perpetual sad sack Charlie Brown heaves a heavy sigh, resigned to the fact that his best friend is a total weirdo. "When are you going to stop believing in something that isn’t true?" Charlie Brown asks, more rhetorically than anything else. But Linus snaps back, fervent: "When you stop believing in the fellow with the red suit and the white beard who goes, 'Ho ho ho.'" Sheepish, Charlie Brown mutters something about "denominational differences" and makes his exit stage left.
According to producer and animator Lee Mendelson, making a special about the Great Pumpkin as a futile metaphor for Santa Claus was almost an act of defiance against those CBS executives who demanded another holiday blockbuster — especially after those same executives made it clear that they had hated A Charlie Brown Christmas. Mendelson's book on the creation of "a television classic" reveals that Schulz was "ambivalent about Santa Claus," finding it absurd that the idea endured when so many children wouldn't get the overflowing bounty the fairy tale promises.
And so whatever the other kids say, Linus believing in the Great Pumpkin is no less ridiculous than believing in Santa Claus. Unlike his unwavering faith in A Charlie Brown Christmas, which included the famous recitation of Luke 2:8-14, the other kids think Linus's faith in the Great Pumpkin is just a sad joke. But it doesn't matter. He's the odd one out, having placed his faith in the wrong thing.
The best holiday specials are the ones that embrace melancholy
This final stretch of the year tries for exuberance, promising more treats than tricks, but there is always an undercurrent of melancholy. If everything is telling you that you should be happy, but you're not, it feels like a personal failing — and there's no time of year when that contrast comes more into focus than the holidays.
So for every exuberant Christmas special, there is a melancholy counterpart. It's like Inside Out said: There is no joy without sadness.
Stories that end happily ever after are more satisfying if their protagonists have triumphed over misery. If George Bailey hadn't swum down to the very pits of his own misery, It's a Wonderful Life's exuberant conclusion wouldn't have had nearly the same emotional impact. Watching George come to terms with his own unhappiness keeps that final beat of reuniting with his family, which practically bubbles over with grateful joy, from being too saccharine. Even the goofy claymation of Rankin/Bass specials makes its characters endure humiliation and despair before everything turns out all right.
But It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown goes a step further. There's no easy happy ending for anyone. Charlie Brown goes trick-or-treating and ends up with a bag full of rocks. Snoopy embraces his new alter ego, but ends up crying at the sad turns his theme song takes. Linus waits up for the Great Pumpkin, only to end up shivering and alone in the pumpkin patch.
For a children's cartoon, it's some dark stuff — but it's also perfectly in line with how holiday specials work, thrive, and become canon. It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown welcomes the holiday season by welcoming sadness, with open arms and a hopeful heart.
The Great Pumpkin isn't about scares, or costumes, or even candy. It's about belief.
Linus doesn't care that the other kids think he's crazy. He knows what he believes, and he'll wait as long as it takes. (And, to be fair, the possibility of seeing an enormous anthropomorphic pumpkin is a pretty spectacular one.)
His belief in the Great Pumpkin is absolute. While Charlie Brown is aware that Lucy could pull the football away at any moment, Linus won't even consider the possibility that his belief in the Great Pumpkin won't be rewarded.
Linus's unwavering faith is what makes the end of The Great Pumpkin so devastating. Linus is left alone in the patch when Sally (Charlie Brown's little sister) finally gives up hope that this pumpkin evangelist has any actual idea what he's talking about. But Linus keeps waiting, and waiting, and waiting, until finally, Lucy wanders out at 4 in the morning to bring him back inside and tuck him into bed.
So Linus's belief isn't rewarded, after all. It's a jarring end for what is ostensibly a children's special, but there is still something beautiful about the letdown. Mendelson quotes Schulz saying that even while Linus is crushed, "it shows that you can't always get what you hoped for, but you can still survive — and you can keep trying."
That pain of failed expectations is a near-universal feeling, and not just in the Peanuts world, wherein trick-or-treaters get rocks, footballs get snatched away at the last second, and the Great Pumpkin is a no-show. It's a bruise that starts with a sharp, sudden pain and blossoms into something more enduring, something that becomes sensitive and sore.
So yeah, Halloween costumes are fun. But The Great Pumpkin made and continues to make its mark by tapping into a feeling that can resonate outside the trappings of the holiday, to the bittersweet hope that there is something bigger and better beyond.
It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown airs October 19 on ABC at 8 pm.
Corrected to reflect that Snoopy's alter ego is not the Red Baron, who is, in fact, Snoopy's nemesis.