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Watching It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown with a 5-year-old

Our critic-at-large (39) and critic-at-small (5) discuss the most iconic Halloween special of them all.

Linus and Sally think they hear the Great Pumpkin rising out of the pumpkin patch.
Linus and Sally have a spooky adventure on Halloween night.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Since 1966, It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown has aired annually on American television. It started on CBS (where it ran until 2000), then moved to ABC (from 2001 to 2019), and is now exclusively available through AppleTV+ for the foreseeable future. (It will be free to stream for anyone who has the AppleTV+ app for 48 hours starting Friday. You don’t even have to subscribe.) That makes this story of Charlie Brown and the Peanuts gang spending a particularly eventful Halloween together the most iconic Halloween special in American TV history, one that has defined many pop culture takes on Halloween.

Yet many of the activities and party games depicted in It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown have all but disappeared from mainstream culture. When’s the last time anyone you know went bobbing for apples? I, a nearly 40-year-old human woman, have only seen bobbing for apples at a party once in my life, and since that was when I was a tiny child, I can’t entirely trust my memory. (YouTube has a number of “bobbing for apples” videos, most of them of the “Wow, I’ve never tried this, seems weird!” variety. I recommend this one from 2016 of Jimmy Fallon and Priyanka Chopra giving it a shot.)

But this slow abandonment of old Halloween traditions is documented in other areas of Great Pumpkin. Trick-or-treating still exists, but increasingly, it doesn’t involve small bands of children wandering their neighborhood at night, unsupervised, to beg for candy. Even before this year of Covid-19, trick or treating involved carefully managed events where children, with their parents, gather treats, usually in the early evening, before it’s too dark outside.

And do today’s kids even wait for the Great Pumpkin in sincere pumpkin patches anymore? They don’t!? Well, when I was a girl ...

I simply had to find out what the children of today think about the way It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown depicts Halloween. And since one of my most trusted colleagues, critic-at-small Eliza, is a literal child (she’s 5 and one-quarter!), I thought we could get to the bottom of just what Halloween means and just what she thought about this beloved Peanuts special. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.

Emily and Eliza on the enduring appeal of Peanuts

Snoopy sneaks into the Halloween party in It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.
Happy Halloween from the Peanuts gang.
Walt Disney Television via Getty Images Photo Archives

Emily: The comic strip Peanuts is one of just a handful of things I would call myself a legitimate “fan” of. The stories of Charlie Brown and Snoopy, Linus and Lucy, and Peppermint Patty and Marcie were some of the very first things I truly adored as a kid. I loved Snoopy’s flights of fancy and the glum-but-whimsical world the comic took place in, most of all.

Yet unlike so many other favorite things I loved as a child, Peanuts has retained its appeal for me as an adult. The series’ enduring genius stems from how beautifully its creator, Charles Schulz, managed to write a strip so broadly appealing. Peanuts spoke equally to kids, who just wanted to escape into an alternate world, and adults, who found something in the comic’s underlying melancholy that reflected the experiences of life after childhood.

The TV specials are a big part of my love for Peanuts.

Some of them, however, play into some of the strip’s worst qualities, especially once it was past its peak. The ones produced in the 1980s, when as many as three specials were released in a year, particularly showed off Peanuts at its worst. They sometimes played into hip trends of the moment — It’s Flashbeagle, Charlie Brown — or took on subjects with a gravity difficult to discuss in a half-hour cartoon. (My favorite of these late-period specials, if only for its title, came out in early 1990. It’s called Why, Charlie Brown, Why and is about the Peanuts gang meeting ... a little girl with cancer. It’s honestly okay, but it’s also a lot.)

Yet at their best, the animated Peanuts specials capture what is timeless about the strip’s weird sadness and find ways to take the ideas presented in the comic and bring them to cartoon life. The sequence where Snoopy imagines being a World War I fighter pilot shot down behind enemy lines in Great Pumpkin, for instance, reflects the dog’s big imagination from the comic. But there’s something so much more immediate about seeing him actually skulk about, looking for the dastardly Red Baron.

Eliza, you don’t have the same history with Peanuts that I do. Did you respond to any of the characters in particular?

Eliza: Linus and Lucy. My favorite favorite was Pig Pen because he’s always dirty. And Snoopy!

Emily: Oh, I love Snoopy, too. I have a Snoopy right here. [I held up the stuffed Snoopy I keep at my desk. You’ll just have to imagine this part.]

Eliza: My grandma has a Snoopy that plays music!

Emily and Eliza on sibling rivalry

Linus, passed out from a pumpkin crash, lies on the ground as Lucy looks on.
Linus has some trouble with the pumpkin Lucy picked out.

Emily: Perhaps the most enduring cultural legacy of the Peanuts specials is “Linus and Lucy,” the jazzy piano theme by Vince Guaraldi that has become the de facto theme song of the animated Peanuts universe, as well as a Christmas music classic. (I’d wager that just thinking about the Peanuts specials lodged the tune in your brain somewhere.)

What I forget every time I watch It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown is just how much it’s built around the relationship between Linus and Lucy, the brother/sister dynamic that drove so many of the best Peanuts stories.

Yes, Linus is the stalwart believer in the Great Pumpkin, the enormous pumpkin beast that chooses what he has dubbed the “most sincere” pumpkin patch to rise out of. (He then delivers toys to all the good children who happen to be waiting for him.) But while the bulk of the story involves Linus and Sally, Charlie Brown’s younger sister, waiting for the Great Pumpkin on Halloween night, so much of what’s around that story involves Lucy tormenting her younger brother, and later her ultimate affection for him shining through.

The special is bookended by two sequences involving Linus and Lucy going to the pumpkin patch. In the opening scene, they select a giant pumpkin that Linus then rolls home (a thing I do not recommend trying). And in the closing scene, we see Lucy guiding her brother home and into bed after another year when the Great Pumpkin didn’t show. It’s a sweet encapsulation of the pair’s relationship, which is mostly combative except when they’re sticking up for each other.

Eliza, you have a younger sibling. How did you feel about these two?

Eliza: I liked when Linus went to the pumpkin patch and picked out two pumpkins, and Lucy was like, “Uh-uh,” and then he picked out a big pumpkin, and she was, like, “Yes!”

Emily: Why do you like Linus and Lucy so much?

Eliza: Because Lucy is Linus’s sister.

Emily: Are they like you and your sister?

Eliza: Uh-huh. Except I’m a girl, and [my sister] is a girl. Linus is a boy, and Lucy is a girl.

Emily: Do you treat your sister like Lucy treats Linus?

Eliza: Sometimes. [Long pause.] Not usually. [Long pause in which it seems like she’s about to say something but does not.]

Emily: That’s good.

Emily and Eliza on Halloween traditions

ABC’s “Charlie Brown”
Dog lips! I’ve been kissed by a dog!
Walt Disney Television via Getty Images Photo Archives/Walt Disney Television via Getty Images

Emily: I grew up in rural South Dakota, so my childhood felt like a mirror of Schulz’s own childhood in the Twin Cities. The universe of Peanuts, with its endless winters and wide-open spaces without almost any adult presence to speak of, has always felt fundamentally right to me on some level.

So it goes with It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown which really does capture how it felt to go trick-or-treating as a kid in my little town. (I only went a couple of times, due to attending a church that believed Halloween was satanic. A story for another time!) I was never given a rock like Charlie Brown was, but there was something ghoulishly fun about being out after dark, going up to dimly lit front porches to beg for candy, for cookies, or for a toothbrush (from the local dentist).

Eliza, have you ever done some of the stuff in this special on Halloween, like bobbing for apples?

Eliza: I don’t think I’ve ever bobbed apples.

Emily: Me neither! What’s your favorite part of Halloween?

Eliza: Trick-or-treating!

Emily: Right, but this year is so uncertain for that. Do you think you’ll get to go this year?

Eliza: I don’t know.

Emily: Well, what’s your favorite kind of candy?

Eliza: Skittles and Kit-Kats!

Emily: That’s a really good combo. Do you ever eat them at the same time?

Eliza: No.

Emily: That might be too much sugar at once. Does your mom let you eat as much candy as you want?

Eliza: [Heavy sigh, as if to say, “What do you think, buddy?”] No.

Emily and Eliza on costumes

Charlie Brown hefts the rock he got while trick or treating.
“I got a rock.”

Emily: One of the great joys of this special is the almost impressionistic art, created by a team led by director Bill Melendez. The night sky is covered in thick brushstrokes from the background painters, and the kids mostly dress as ghosts in a way that almost lets them seem to float through that night in the animated landscape. It’s appropriately eerie. Did you have a favorite costume, Eliza?

Eliza: Lucy was a witch. Violet was a witch, and then all the others were ghosts. But my favorite ghost was Pig Pen and Charlie Brown. Charlie Brown because he had so much trouble with the eyes, and Pig Pen because he had just a dirt cloud around his costume.

Emily: People sure are mean to Charlie Brown. What do you think about that? They give him rocks for trick or treating!

Eliza: I don’t like it, but it’s really funny when he says, [pitch perfect Charlie Brown impression] “I got a rock. I got a rock. I got a rock.”

Emily: So what are you gonna be for Halloween this year?

Eliza: I’m gonna be a deep-sea diver, and I wish I was going to be holding a helium balloon, so I could float in the air and pretend I was swimming. But it’s a punching balloon, so it’s round. [I have since learned from Eliza’s mom, my editor, Jen, that the deep-sea diver helmet for the costume is a papier-mâché masterpiece the two built together, which was formed around a punching balloon.]

Emily: So you’re not going to be able to float off the ground. That’s too bad.

Eliza: I wouldn’t want to, because I wouldn’t want to be away from my friends for so long and maybe land in the ocean or a different state.

Emily and Eliza on imagination

Snoopy skulks around the neighborhood, pretending to be down behind enemy lines.
Look at this gorgeous art from Snoopy’s imagined trek through France.

Emily: When Melendez and producer Lee Mendelson first began thinking about how to adapt Peanuts for television, they were concerned that they would struggle to incorporate Snoopy, the strip’s most popular character, who expressed all of his dialogue via thought balloons. Having him speak would destroy the illusion a bit.

Their solution was brilliant: Make Snoopy an expert mime. If he could play the actions of something without the words, that would allow him to interact with the kids in a way that was recognizably Snoopy.

But they weren’t entirely sure if this would work, so they used Snoopy only sparingly in the first Peanuts special, 1965’s A Charlie Brown Christmas. However, by the time they were making It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, they were confident enough in their approach to give Snoopy an entire story of his own, where he pretended to be stuck in the French countryside.

Eliza, what did you think of what Snoopy had to do here, when he crawled around?

Eliza: He was pretending his doghouse was getting shot by a gun, and then he had to crawl through France to find his doghouse.

Emily: How did you know he was pretending?

Eliza: Because my mom told me. ... And his doghouse can’t fly up in the air.

Emily: Yeah, doghouses can’t fly like that! That’s a good point.

Eliza: And smoke doesn’t come out of the back of doghouses like that!

Emily: I like when he’s on his adventure and he shows up at the party with the other kids, and he listens to Schroeder play the piano. And he gets excited, and he gets sad, and he gets excited, and he gets sad. That’s fun.

Eliza: I also like the part where he sneaks into the party and is peeking out. And then he goes into the water bucket, and he grabs an apple, and Lucy gets the same apple, and she’s, like, [shrieks] “Ah! Poison dog lips!”

Emily: Do you know any dogs? Do you like when they lick you all over the face?

Eliza: Yes.

Emily: That’s nice, isn’t it? [Moves on to next topic] So what do you think about —

Eliza: But I don’t really want dogs to lick me in the face right now because of coronavirus. Like if they got it, I might get it.

Emily: I don’t think dogs are in any danger from coronavirus. That’s what I had heard.

Eliza: If I got bitten by a dog, if they had coronavirus, then I might get sick.

Emily: It’s good to be precautious. I think you’re doing the right thing. [Moves on to next topic] Now do you think —

Eliza: I wear my mask, but my sister never wears her mask. She does not like it.

Emily: Telling on your sister like that is a very Lucy thing to do, Eliza. I hope you realize this. Speaking of imagination, what do you think about Linus believing in the Great Pumpkin?

Eliza: He never goes trick-or-treating, because he believes in the Great Pumpkin, but it just never happens!

Emily: An interesting lesson. Do you think the Great Pumpkin is real? Does Linus just have to wait around and have faith?

Eliza: [with great conviction] Yes.

Emily: Did you know that the Peanuts comic itself went back and forth on whether anybody but Linus believed in the Great Pumpkin, with at least a few strips suggesting the Great Pumpkin had a variety of acolytes out there?

What about you? Do you believe? Have you ever seen the Great Pumpkin?

Eliza: [exasperated] Yes. The last time I saw it was at Grandma’s house.

Emily: Oh, I mean have you seen the Great Pumpkin himself — the pumpkin who brings toys to all the children?

Eliza: No. ... At least not in our pumpkin patch.

Emily: Maybe next year.

It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown is streaming on AppleTV+. It will be free to non-subscribers who download the app from October 30 through November 1.