Because I’m a sap for tradition with a needy and demanding inner child, I still make a jack-o’-lantern for Halloween. Last night I finally carved out (ha) some time for it, and I cued up my DVD of It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.
I watched this cartoon every Halloween as a child. As an adult, I’ve been using it as my pumpkin-carving background noise for years. By now, it’s a comfortable routine; I wasn’t even paying much attention. And then, during the scene where Linus writes his letter to the Great Pumpkin, it hit me right between the eyes that the Great Pumpkin is a metaphor for God.
Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised by the revelation. After all, another beloved cartoon has made a similar analogy about Santa Claus, and Linus explicitly calls out the parallelism between Santa Claus and the Great Pumpkin. But somehow I had never seen it before. The rest of the episode only strengthened the metaphor: Linus, the true believer, ridiculed by those who don’t share his belief. Preaching the good news of the Great Pumpkin to potential convert Sally. Denying himself worldly pleasures to wait patiently in the pumpkin patch for a reward from a being who never appears and may or may not even exist.
And from there, I had to wonder: did Charles Schulz do that on purpose?
It’s plausible. Schulz often made references to Christian theology in his work; this is the same man who could turn a baseball game into a meditation on the Book of Job. It seems significant that the Great Pumpkin believer is Linus, the same character who quotes the Gospel of Luke in A Charlie Brown Christmas and who in the comic strip is something of a pint-sized Bible scholar. And Charlie Brown frames his and Linus’ differing beliefs (in Santa Claus and the Great Pumpkin) as “denominational differences”, which makes the metaphor nearly explicit. But if Schulz did intend the metaphor, what was he trying to say? Was he implying that God is no more real than the Great Pumpkin, or is Linus meant to be an admirable example of holding fast to faith without proof? Or, following the Peanuts theme of failure, is it that whether or not
God the Great Pumpkin is out there, Linus has no more chance of seeing him than Charlie Brown has of kicking Lucy’s football? Or is none of it deliberate, and Schulz just wanted to make a silly joke about Linus confusing Halloween and Christmas?
But really, does it matter what he intended? Sure, it might be interesting to trace the history of the Great Pumpkin Peanuts strips and see if they reflected changes in Schulz’s religious beliefs over time. But even if Schulz deliberately set up a parable about faith, he doesn’t hit anyone over the head with the allegory. (I’m looking at you, C. S. Lewis.) Most viewers watch It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown and enjoy it without reading it that way. Up until this year, that included me.
Nothing has changed about It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown since I last watched it. If anything was different, it was me. The text revealed a new meaning because I had changed in some way, or happened to have different things on my mind. It’s Death of the Author: whatever Schulz was thinking, the work is going to carry whatever meaning a particular viewer sees in it. Maybe all art, done well, is bound to carry undercurrents in it that the author never consciously set up.