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The Snowman and the sacrifices of Christmas

Nothing else has been quite as effective for introducing children to grief

Artillery Row

Watching Raymond Briggs’ The Snowman is an enduring part of a British Christmas day. It will become — like Dickens and spruce trees before it — an integral part of the holiday’s iconography. Without a single word, it depicts in richly detailed crayon sketches a child’s glee on Christmas Eve, as the snowman he constructed comes to life and plays with him. The child’s joyous smile when being flown to meet Father Christmas ends up solemnly juxtaposed with his weeping, as he discovers the Snowman’s melted remains the following morning.

It is a mournful tale, really, which one wouldn’t initially associate with the charm and vibrance of Christmas.

The film is amongst the greatest pieces of culture Britain has ever produced. What is striking about it, is how a few barely noticeable changes from the book radically alter the narrative. Despite being considered a Christmas classic, the film’s source material has no connection at all to Christmas. Stripped of the adventure to the North Pole, the story could occur on any bleak and frosty winter’s day.

With these changes, it becomes a tale of how the inevitability of death gives us meaning, and how the magic of Christmas is predicated on intergenerational acts of sacrifice.

It does this by creating an atmosphere of childhood isolation from the start. The lonesome tone is set as we drift towards the comfort of a child’s bedroom, witnessing images of sickly trees in a barren and uninhabited landscape.

The child’s isolation is palpable. He’s bereft of company, trapped within the tight confines of the home, and all that surrounds him is frozen rural expanse.

His mother and father are not especially attentive. I did not realise it as a child, but there is something poignant in a child’s circular footprints on snow-laden grass — leaving scars which mark steps without purpose. He has all the energy of youth — but alone, it soon withers.

Howard Blake’s score supports this sense wonderfully. As the child wanders aimlessly in the garden, long forlorn strings rise in pitch, accompanied by others in a steady descent of tone. When he builds the Snowman, though, a happy mood is summoned up by shorter harp-like strings which jolt between metres with all the energy of the excited child. A feeling of security is added by the newfound presence of rich bass tones.

Whilst the parents are present, they clearly don’t connect with the simple playfulness of childhood curiosity. The child’s mother tucks him to bed, but also chastises him when his harmless youthful excess leads him to accidently throw a snowball at a window.

Immediately after this parental rejection of play, the Snowman comes into his life as something akin to a second parent. It Embraces that universal experience of seeing wonder in the most banal household items: the slightly distorted image of a face in a rouge bauble, flicking a light switch on and off, and the marbled smile of false teeth. Contrast this to the father’s slightly perfunctory companionship of toasting his bread in the fire, unaware that his son is not even sitting nearby until his mother beckons him back over.

What most radically changes the narrative, though, is a frown

It was the insightful decision of the film’s grossly underappreciated director, Dianne Jackson, to set the story during Christmas that contextualises these themes in a way which really adds to their poignancy. So much so that not only did Briggs say that “it worked extremely well”, but it has become the definitive version of the story. In most bookshops, you will find a book called The Snowman, but it is rarely Briggs’ original. It will likely be a version which adapts the film instead. Even if you actively sought after the original, the copy you’ll receive from retailers upon ordering will often be this revised version.

It’s shocking how such tiny differences can radically change the implications of a story. In print, the parents’ sleep elicits silence, but it’s just out of respect for their slumber. The child walks down the stairs quietly, but steps normally when getting out of bed to inspect his snowman. When the Snowman spends a moment in the parents’ bedroom, it’s brief and he smiles upon entering: there is also a specific purpose, to try on some clothes. There is no sense that they are a constraining force on fun.

In the film however, upon seeing the sleeping parents, the Snowman looks around with anxious uncertainty and leans towards the child as if to wonder whether their actions are okay. The parents are seen as a threat. Suspenseful music plays in their room, as if inspiring the thrill of a Danse Macabre — dancing with death. Every second of enjoyment is enhanced by its juxtaposition with the sense of possible parental wrath.

What most radically changes the narrative, though, is a frown.

The film places a much greater emphasis on the Snowman’s fragility. Not only does he have an aversion to heat, but he seeks the solace of the cold after being exposed to it. After riding a motorbike, its warmth was harmful to him, so he takes refuge in a body-length freezer to heal. In the book, it was just one momentary playful act amongst many. Here, the sense is that the freezer is akin to an iron lung.

It is this scene which is the most thematically transformative, as the Snowman does not just get out of the freezer to happily engage in other acts of play. Instead, he sees a picture of the North Pole which causes him to frown. He breaks into a reassuring smile when looking at the child, as if to say “I’m doing this for you” — but otherwise, as he leaves the freezer, he is solemn and gloomy.

In light of the fact that the Snowman dies after this adventure, his stoic countenance was likely from him accepting death in order to give his child a period of unimaginable joy: a core memory that the boy will fondly recall. The revised book grasps the significance of this moment, adding, “then suddenly the Snowman stopped smiling … was he remembering something?”

The scene becomes the lynchpin of the narrative, as it transforms the story into one of how the wonder and magic of Christmas requires parental sacrifice. Perhaps despite these celebrations becoming mundane as we age, we should remember childhood’s wonder at them. Whilst we may not find using fruit to make funny faces particularly amusing, we once did, and we should engage with children on that level, lest they become isolated and alone if we don’t.

Each choice we make, like ink dried into paper, is forever

This is why the iconic song Walking in the Air appears at this moment, when they start to travel to meet Santa Claus. The previous acts at home were fun, but they lacked the enormity, magic and fantasy that Christmas inspires in the young. Such feelings are only made possible by the selfless acts of those older than they are. It is after the Snowman’s selfless decision that the adventure takes upon a new level of the fantastical as they start to fly. In hearing the child’s voice as the lyrics to the song, for the first and only time through this chapter, it is clear that this is the moment where the night became one of his life’s defining moments of memory.

This makes it so poignant that it came at the greatest cost, as we are not just engaged in a solemn act of abstract empathy — the child’s glee is effectively serenading us as he sings. Whilst MPs may refer to parenthood as a “penalty”, it shows they have missed an inescapable fact of life: children are important for meaning and purpose as time passes.

Ultimately we, like the Snowman, will die. The film begins with The Snowman as a title and then ends with the phrase “The Snowman was … ”. When someone speaks of what your life “was”, do you want them to chronicle the self-absorbed and the routine, or how your decisions elicited the beautiful poetry of Walking in the Air?

There are only so many pages, so many lines. Each choice we make, like ink dried into paper, is forever, each at the expense of something else we could have done to be written there instead.

Briggs said that he doesn’t have happy endings:

I create what seems natural and inevitable. The snowman melts, my parents died, animals die, flowers die. Everything does. There’s nothing particularly gloomy about it. It’s a fact of life.

It is this thematic honesty which makes The Snowman capture the feeling of the season in a way that each generation can appreciate different facets of it.

The Christmas setting contextualises these themes in a universally compelling form. These things are present, but they do not destroy the love and happiness of the time.

Christmas can be a time where people consider whether it is even worthwhile — to complete the time-consuming burdens of obtaining and preparing the ingredients for a large meal, to be pleasant to relatives you don’t always like, to wrap presents to add an element of mystery, and to think of something personal to write in a card.

However, these things are not entirely altruistic sacrifices. They are a route to rekindling the majesty of Christmas in ourselves — giving the same innocent pleasures to the young, that the old passed onto us when they were at an age of their own cynicism. The magic does not die, for we become its progenitors.

Christmas will one day represent the last time we bring a group together. The knowledge it may be our last is a relatable anchor for the themes of The Snowman to resonate. With its sense of sacrificial love and mortality, it is real to the true experience of the season — in both its wonder and in its melancholy.

So, make the most of your time with those you love and revere; play and appreciate the times together.

Do as the child with the Snowman does: embrace the urge to turn back, run and hug your friend as you leave them, for even the most mundane of partings could, unbeknown to you, be the last time you see them.

Ultimately, The Snowman stands as a story of how the cyclical nature of life induces pain, but also meaning. Once we reach adulthood, the magic of Christmas still exists, but in a new form.

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