Regarded as a holiday classic, The Snowman started as a children’s book by Raymond Briggs before getting adapted into an Oscar-nominated short film. The short also produced a major Christmas single with “Walking in the Air”, a video game, and finally a sequel in 2012, The Snowman and the Snowdog. Such a beloved work, of course, has a more interesting history and a deeper meaning than you might think. Join us on a journey through the air from Briggs’s conception of the story to its cultural impact today and discover what makes The Snowman so magical.
Raymond Briggs became an illustrator in the 1950s after attempting a career as a painter. Most of his work from the late-1950s through the 1960s could be found in children’s books such as Peter and the Piskies and the Hamish Hamilton Book of Magical Beasts. Briggs won a medal for illustrating an edition of Mother Goose for Hamish Hamilton publishing in 1966. It would be another seven years before Briggs would publish his own original work, Father Christmas. Unlike past depictions of Father Christmas, Briggs’s story presented Santa as a grouchy old man who lives in a normal house and treats his job like any working-class man would. It was followed by a sequel in 1975, Father Christmas Goes on Holiday and produced an animated adaptation itself in 1991.
Briggs published The Snowman in 1978, though it wasn’t intended as a Christmas story. Instead, Briggs admitted that he wrote the book as a way to talk to children about death. While the boy’s journey with the snowman is presented as magical and special, the next day, the boy must come to terms with the Snowman’s absence. To Briggs, such endings are a natural, as he told the Radio Times “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.” Despite this, the story managed to take on a life of its own and an association with Christmas due in part to Father Christmas’s presence in the story.
The story became even more associated with Christmas when Channel 4 produced the animated short film in 1982. Shown on December 26, The Snowman was an instant hit as was its central theme tune “Walking in the Air”. The song was written by Howard Blake and performed by St. Paul’s Cathedral choir boy Peter Auty. The original song was not released as a single until 1985, by which time Auty’s voice had broken, so Welsh chorister Aled Jones stepped in to perform the version that most people know today. In the ensuing years, three different introductions were made for the film, including one with Briggs himself as an older James (a name given to the boy by the film), David Bowie as James and the Narrator, and an intro with Mel Smith as Father Christmas (which played from 2002 to Smith’s death in 2013).
Also shown in the United States, The Snowman’s popularity has been unsurpassed in the United Kingdom. The film has been shown on Channel 4 every year since and finally got a sequel for the 30th anniversary in 2012, The Snowman and the Snowdog, which ends on a slightly happier note as even though the title characters melt in the morning, the snowdog becomes a real dog in the end. Some more offbeat adaptations of the story included a platform-style video game and an Irn Bru commercial in 2016. The commercial parodied the story and “Walking in the Air” by featuring a boy who won’t share his soda which results in the Snowman dropping him in mid-air. As a side note, the one place in the world where the Snowman’s popularity rivals the UK is Japan, where images of the character are used to sell everything from chicken to bathroom accessories.
The Snowman today maintains its Christmas classic status, continuing to be shown every year where it is more popular than the timeless Frosty the Snowman. While Raymond Briggs may not have intended for his story to be associated with the Christmas holiday, its inclusion of Father Christmas and holiday magic keeps it as one of the nation’s best-loved tales. And like many people all over the world, we will be watching and sharing in the emotions The Snowman inspires.