Peanuts and Pumpkins

Three years ago, New York Magazine’s website Vulture ranked all forty-five Peanuts animated television specials from worst to best, including a paragraph on each one to justify its ranking. I wouldn’t have guessed Charlie Brown, Linus, and Lucy appeared in fifteen television specials let alone forty-five. But let’s be honest; only two Peanuts adventures have had any staying power: It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown (#2 on Vulture’s list), and A Charlie Brown Christmas (#1).

Maybe I’ll weigh in on the Christmas special in a couple of months, but with Halloween on the horizon I need to speak to the runner-up. It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown first aired on television in 1966, so those who were alive back then (me) have the chance to see it for the 56th time this year. But maybe not? The networks stopped showing Great Pumpkin two years ago.  Other than PBS in select locations, you’ll have to buy the DVD or subscribe to Apple TV+ to watch Charlie Brown get another rock in his trick-or-treat bag.

Writing about a Peanuts special dates me – there’s no question.  But it’s still worth the words.  The Peanuts gang was the comic strip of my youth.  I remember the anticipation of the Sunday morning newspaper and the “funnies” pages.  Charles M. Schulz and his Peanuts characters always got the first slot.  When the specials debuted in the mid-60s, it was a big deal.  It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown only showed up once a year, in mid-October.  We didn’t have DVRs (let alone streaming) back then, so watch it live or you’d miss it.  Peanuts specials were always the hot topic of conversation at grade school the next day.

After so many watches, Great Pumpkin becomes an interesting study.  You pick up on the little things, the ones which would implode under the weight of today’s social media scrutiny.  Right out of the credits, Linus & Lucy head to a patch to pick out a pumpkin.  On the way, Linus picks up an apple among the fallen leaves, takes a single bite, and tosses it into a trash can. (Unnecessary waste!).  In another scene, Lucy stabs a pumpkin with a giant knife as she begins carving (Children with weapons!).  Then Linus looks on in horror and says, “I didn’t realize you were going to kill it!” (Violence!)

Great Pumpkin touches on other themes to sink today’s children’s shows, including bullying, teasing, and casual use of words like “stupid” and “blockhead”.  Charlie Brown is the butt of several jokes, including Lucy pulling the football away just as he tries to kick, and the girls using the back of his head to draw a pumpkin carving design.  Yes, I laughed at these scenes when I was a kid, but only because I wasn’t that kid (and because it was the 1960s humor).

Here’s an oddity with Great Pumpkin.  You’d think a short animation would be a continuous story.  Not so.  Great Pumpkin jumps awkwardly between disconnected scenes, from carving pumpkins to trick-or-treating to a Halloween Party.  The middle minutes shift randomly to Snoopy acting out his costumed “World War I Flying Ace” in the middle of France.  It’s as if Great Pumpkin didn’t have enough Halloween material to fill a half-hour, or at least needed an excuse to include Snoopy in the story.

Finally, “the Great Pumpkin” itself is completely akin to Santa Claus, but for a different holiday.  Linus writes a letter to the Great Pumpkin to say he’s looking forward to the arrival on Halloween night and hoping for lots of presents.  The Great Pumpkin visits pumpkin patches the way Santa Claus visits houses.  There’s even a mention of “pumpkin carols”.  You’re left wondering why this figment of Linus’ imagination wasn’t a little more unique.

If you haven’t watched It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, I probably haven’t given you reasons to rush to your television.  It’s simple and disjointed, and the animation doesn’t win the show any awards (even in the 1960s).  But just like A Charlie Brown Christmas, the characters are endearing, and the story has a pretty good message.  I’ll probably find myself looking for it again next year.

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

quintessential

This time of year – Halloween in particular – sparks memories of a more innocent time.  In the trick-or-treat years of my day, costumes were homemade from whatever scraps of clothing, cardboard, or construction paper could be found lying around the house. Pumpkins became Jack O’ Lanterns using a dark pencil and a sharp kitchen blade – no “carving kits” to speak of – easy faces and single candles, lit and placed on the front porch to greet the neighborhood each night.  Halloween treats were simple and seasonal (Wax Lips!  Candy Cigarettes!) collected and piled high in bright orange plastic pumpkins.  “It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown!” was thirty minutes of can’t-miss television.

If I’m to put one Halloween memory at the top of my list however, no recollection touches my soul quite like my mom’s “pumpkin cookies”.  These colorful characters go straight to my heart every year I bake up another batch.  Behind those happy/sad/laughing/angry faces are my quintessential childhood memories.

22 - quintessential

Look closely at the photo. Mom’s pumpkin cookies are a fairly simple treat – no family secret here. Find a good rolled ginger cookie recipe (the kind that banks on molasses, cinnamon, ginger, and cloves); roll and shape the cookies like pumpkins; bake to the consistency of gingerbread; frost to a bright orange; and devise the faces with candy corn, M&M’s, and fruit smiles.  Be sure to let them dry before you protect them with a little plastic wrap.  A recipe that claims a yield of sixty will get you about two dozen if you make them the right size.  These cookies are B-I-G.

Mom’s pumpkin cookies tug at my heartstrings for two reasons.  First, mom let my brothers and I do the decorating from a very young age.  We would sit at the dining table – our makeshift bakery – with bowls of candy and row upon row of cookies just waiting for their faces.  Not all of the candy made it onto the cookies.  This was a child’s dream.

Second and more significantly, we handed out Mom’s pumpkin cookies from a big bowl at the front door on Halloween night.  That’s right; instead of Smarties or Abba-Zaba’s or Sugar Babies, we sent dozens of homemade, orange-frosted, funny-faced cookies out into the neighborhood.  Does it get any more innocent than that?

In the early 1970’s, after a rash of highly-publicized incidents involving tampered Halloween candy, a lot of the fun went out of the holiday.  Trick-or-treat candy quickly became the mass-produced, store-bought, plastic-wrapped variety you can buy anytime, anywhere.  Parents took to driving their kids from door to door instead of letting them navigate the streets alone.  “Safe” trick-or-treating was born in churches and shopping malls.

And Mom’s pumpkin cookies started landing in the trash can at the end of our driveway.

Perhaps that explains why forty years later I still bake up a batch.  Perhaps it’s my annual salute to the innocence of Halloween.  Or better, perhaps it’s my mom as I remember her all those years ago, urging me to open the bakery yet again.  Cookies are waiting for their faces.

M&M’s are easy to find, while candy corn requires a bit of a search.  But fruit smiles are becoming the real challenge.  Cracker Barrel stopped selling them a few years ago, no doubt for lack of sales.  But a local candy manufacturer still makes them, so every October I visit their shop and buy my lot.  This year, the older woman behind the counter asked me what I was going to do with four dozen fruit smiles.  So I dipped into my quintessential memories and told her about Mom’s pumpkin cookies.  And just for a moment she paused and closed her eyes, perhaps once again a little girl dressed in costume, running and laughing through darkened streets in search of that next Halloween treat.