We’re Walking in the Air: Tracing the Snowy Tracks of Sentient Snowmen

We’re walking in the air, we’re floating in the moonlit sky.”

(“Walking in the Air” from The Snowman, 1982)

From The Snowman (1978, 1982), the classic short read that has adorned coffee tables for decades, to the surprisingly heartwarming Jack Frost (1998), and even to Doctor Who (2012), snowmen have been depicted as living, breathing, sentient beings for longer than we might think.

So how did this come about?

Well, shockingly enough, it didn’t all start with Frosty.

An earlier recorded case of sentient snowmen is the German short Der Schneemann (“The Snowman”), which was created under the Nazi regime in 1944 (and is now available on Youtube for all to enjoy). Running just under thirteen minutes in length, it tells the story of a snowman who comes to life, becomes determined to see the month of July, and waits out those long months in a fridgeuntil, at last, he gets a taste of the sweet summer days he so longed for.

This portrayal of a snowman enraptured by the wonders of life—a carrot for his nose and a big grin on his face—is likely very familiar to you.

Frosty the Snowman, is a fairytale, they say.

He was made of snow, but the children know he came to life one day”

(Frosty the Snowman, 1950)

This classic song was recorded by Gene Autry and the Cass County Boys just over sixty-five years ago, and still remains popular today. It was through this song that most people became familiar with Frosty’s story: he comes to life with a magic hat, cheerfully roams the town with the children, and eventually flees with a promise to be back someday.

Curiously, the original song never mentions Christmas, despite its contemporary association with the holiday.

Frosty the Snowman was made into a storybook that same year, and the beloved snowman started appearing on screens just a few years later in 1954, perhaps the most renowned adaptation being the Frosty the Snowman Christmas special that aired on CBS on December 7, 1969.

Skipping ahead a few more years, we arrive at Raymond Brigg’s The Snowman (1978), a charming picture book with no words at all. It tells the story of a boy who meets a curious snowman, come to life at midnight on a cold winter’s day, and explores the world with himuntil the next morning, when the snowman melts away under the sun.

The Snowman was adapted as a twenty-six minute short in 1982 and was nominated for an Academy Award. This short is just as wordless as the book on which it is based, featuring just one song with lyrics: the haunting “Walking in the Air” by Howard Blake, which plays as the boy and the snowman soar over the dark winter landscape.

(Many of you may not know that an equally delightful sequel—The Snowman and the Snowdog—was released in 2012, with many of the original team having taken part in its creation.)

While Frosty and its many derivations leave the ending ambiguous as to where he goes, The Snowman, as well as its sequel thirty years later, beautifully illustrate the tragic and inevitable fate of any being created from snow.

Nowadays, it is not difficult to see sentient snowmen portrayed in various forms of media.

You may have spotted a familiar carrot-nosed figure in Phineas and Ferb’s Christmas Vacation!, or cheered on the quirky Olaf in the 2013 film Frozen.

A significant portion of sentient snowmen tend to be depicted in a manner that resembles the friendly, lovable Frosty: one who trots to and fro, inspiring smiles on the faces of children everywhere.

Sometimes, however, the storyline can be a tad unusual.

Take the movie Jack Frost (1998), for example, wherein a fatherkilled in a car accidentis resurrected in the form of a snowman by his grieving son. Despite being a box office flop, this rather unconventional movie still uses the image of a snowman as a symbol of joy, friendship, and love to tell its story.

However, not all snowmen have good intentions.

Now, what are you? Eh? A flock of space crystals. A swarm!

But the snowmen are foot soldiers. Mindless predators.”

(The Doctor, The Snowmen, Doctor Who Christmas Special 2012)

In Doctor Who’s Christmas special, snowmen are terrifying, sharp-toothed villains (whose faces might give you nightmares) that appear by the hoards at your feet, conjured simply by thought.

You’ve also likely seen an advertisement for the 2014 Nissan Rogue in which angry snowmen, armed to the buttons with shovels and crowbars and snowballs, mow down crowds of screaming people with their attacks, their power unmatched and undefeatableunless, of course, you’re in a sturdy Nissan Rogue.

There have been a significant number of snowmen that go against the Frosty stereotype, the ones listed above being just a small sample. Can you think of any others?

Something about a smiling—or in some cases, a snarling—semi-humanoid figure that we create with our own two gloved hands seems to captivate us. It’s magical enough to make the imagination come alive and to warm (or stop!) our hearts in the coldest of times.

-Contributed by Sophie Cho

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