Some Reflections Signifying Nothing:
Frosty the Snowman is one of the few not-wholly-reprehensible morsels of regurgitated pabulum regularly offered for consumption at this time of year. Compared to other ‘Christmas Classics’ such as Santa Claus is Coming to Town and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty is at least not guilty of teaching children a disturbing or disgraceful lesson. Santa Claus is Coming to Town presents that corpulent old man from the North Pole as a Sejanus or a Stalin (he sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake). Rudolph teaches children that it is morally acceptable to mock someone’s physical peculiarities until the boss, inconvenienced by a sudden shift in the weather, realizes that he can profitably exploit that genetic mutation for his own purposes. Frosty, however, is the most Horatian of our Christmas tales – an inversion of the old return of spring trope. The Spring (and with it, life) return in Horace 4.7:
Diffugere nives, redeunt iam gramina campis
‘The snows have fled, the grass returns to the fields and the leaves to the trees.’
Housman regarded this as the most beautiful poem in Latin, and was famously shaken from his icy English emotional restraint when reading it to a class. Like so much of the best non-scatological Latin poetry, it is a meditation upon the brevity of life and the inevitability of death:
non, Torquate, genus, non te facundia, non te
‘Torquatus, you will not be brought back by your name, your eloquence, or your piety.’
Frosty is in like manner a meditation on death and the brevity of life, but achieves a similar effect through the inversion of the seasons. Frosty melts after being trapped in a greenhouse. The protagonist Karen bitterly laments his death, but Santa reassures her:
‘Don’t cry, Karen. Frosty’s not gone for good. You see, he was made out of Christmas snow and Christmas snow can never disappear completely. Oh, it sometimes goes away for almost a year at a time and takes the form of Spring and Summer rain, but you can bet your boots that when a good jolly December wind kisses it, it will turn in to Christmas snow all over again!’
Spring and Summer now stand in for death, but Winter will bring about Frosty’s rebirth. Karen is forced to reconcile herself to Frosty’s symbolic death every year at the end of the Christmas season. Yet, the pain caused by this ineluctable event is premonitory of Karen’s own death. In Horace’s poem, the cyclical departure of the seasons is precisely what guarantees their immortality. We are supposed to learn from witnessing this cycle of death every year, but we are not to extend the analogy too far:
Damna tamen celeres reparant caelestia lunae:
nos ubi decidimus
‘The swift moons make good the celestial loss. But when we die…’
Catullus expresses the same thought, employing the same poetic plural for a singular celestial object (Catullus V):
soles occidere et redire possunt:
nobis cum semel occidit brevis lux,
nox est perpetua una dormienda.
‘Suns can fall and return, but as soon as our brief light has fallen, we must sleep one unending night.’
I enjoyed this past week, and I am thankful that I was officially off of work for that time. As I ended my work week last Friday in a sense of giddy anticipation, I nevertheless knew that the break would come to an end, and the good times would be over. I used to take the peculiarly claustrophobic nausea which I feel on Sunday nights at face value – that is, I thought that it was about returning to work. But I enjoy my job – it can’t alone be the source of physical revulsion. Rather, Monday is when Frosty returns to the North Pole, and all of my yesterdays since last Friday ‘have lighted fools the way to dusty death.’ The end of a weeklong vacation is a premonitory tableau of the scene in which the Reaper lays his hand upon me; I knew that this moment would come. I don’t mind going back to work tomorrow – I just don’t want to die. At moments like these, one can reach for the bottle or for Seneca: ‘Thus, if death is to be feared, it must be feared always. For, what time is exempt from death?’ (Ita si timenda mors est, semper timenda est. Quod enim morti tempus exemptum est?)
8 thoughts on “Frosty, Horace, Death”
This is beautiful, and touching, as I have come to expect. I am comforted by the fact that I am not the only one sent into mortal anxiety by Frosty the Snowman. The frightening thing about Frosty is that it seems that it is the same ‘he’ who comes back each year. What a load of nonsense to feed a child. It is not the same snowman, but another we let seem the same to us!
But we come up with these ideas in part to give the young hope and to allay the anxiety they have. But they don’t need it! Kids seem just find about death. We do. Have you heard the most recent attempt to give us hope that there is a life after this one using quantum entanglement theory: https://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Quantum_consciousness. It is a nice and nicely zeitgeisty attempt, but it really doesn’t do the job.
Anyway, happy winter my friend. stay cool, you know, frosty.
As a true monster, my kid has not only seen Rudolph, he adores it and chose to dress as Yukon Cornelius for Halloween. While the Santa, Elf Boss and Rudolph’s father in that are horrible people in many ways, I don’t think I ever thought they were “correct” in their behavior-the show is pretty clearly on the side of the misfits. I suppose a proper ending would be Rudolph telling Santa tyrant to get fucked and Herbie letting his boss’s rotten tooth kill him, then they could all get rich on Yukon Cornelius’s peppermint mine and let Claus deal with the fall out of his chief elf’s horrible death and his abandonment by the children of the world after he failed to deliver one year. With Rudolph I think the original story makes more sense-the story started with Rudolph being a reindeer living somewhere in the north but not in the North Pole, and Santa comes to give him a present and realizes that his shiny nose is just the light he needs to continue to deliver presents. Santa (and his sled team) don’t treat Rudolph poorly, his neighbors do. Which is a little better, I think, than the weird shape Rankn-Bass pounded it into to make it a 30 minute story rather than an 9 minutes short. They used to show this 1944 version which hews closer to the old story line at my dad’s union Christmas parties: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vzfJdSmTNdk
When I was a kid I would weep at the end of the Rudolph special every year. Not because it was sad, but because I was so upset that it was over. Perhaps this should have been a good indication of how I would feel about life.
I didn’t know about the original version you brought up….
Yeah, I used to get really sad when specials we looked forward to all year were over. I don’t think it”s the same when you can just watch it anytime. 🙂
Rudolph dates to 1939 when Montgomery Ward wanted a holiday character of their own and got their ad man to create one. You can see the original manuscript here: https://www.npr.org/2013/12/25/256579598/writing-rudolph-the-original-red-nosed-manuscript It’s missing a lot of the weird ass touches that the 60s version has.
This is still wonderful. put a note to repost it next winter