Winter symbolizes sadness, introspection, and personal struggle. It is often used as a symbol in war films to emphasize the discomfort of the war, or in scenes where a character is depressed and lonely.
But at times it can also be a symbol of magic, playfulness, and joy – particularly in Christmas and Hallmark-style love stories.
Below, I’ll explore 11 key ways winter is used as a symbol in film and literature, with examples from influential texts like Narnia, Game of Thrones, and Battle of the Bulge.
Winter Symbolism & Meanings
Often, films and books will equate winter with a sad period in a protagonist’s life.
We’re often pushed indoors during winter. The joy of the warmth in the summertime is gone, and you may be left indoors pining for happier, warmer times.
During winter, there aren’t beautiful flowers letting off their fragrances to perfume the air. There aren’t baby animals spotting the landscape and there isn’t the sun there to tingle your skin.
Winter might therefore be equated with melancholy, a character’s sadness or sense that there isn’t much to look forward to.
You may see, for example, that after a particularly bad moment in a character’s storyline that you’ll see them sitting indoors while it’s snowing outside. The season is empathizing with their mood – the sadness is reflected in the suppressive weather outside.
There’s also the potential for a feeling of introspection in winter.
This is for a similar reason to the idea of sadness. Winter brings you indoors and brings out the inner introvert. Winter characters are often not in the middle of an adventure or looking to meet new people. Rather, they’re at home, locked indoors, waiting out the coldest of all seasons.
You can picture a character bedding down for the winter to write their memoir. They might be sitting in a snowy cabin writing by the fireplace and looking outdoors, using their time locked away to ponder life and reflect on how it’s all going.
3. Old Age
We often look at our lives in a series of seasons.
The first season is spring. In nature, babies are born in springtime. It’s a time when warmth is just beginning to take over from the melancholy of winter. There’s a sense of newness, positivity, and youthfulness.
Then there’s summer symbolism when youth gives way to the prime of your life: a time for adventure and positivity. This leads into fall, a season to wind down and enjoy the comforts of life – family, friends, and long-held relationships.
By winter, it’s time for your life to wind down to its natural end. It’s the period of old age. You might use this time to reflect on what you’ve done with your life and whether you did more good than bad. You might think about how you contributed to your family and society. But overall, it’s a time where life is wrapping up. Winter is the final season in your story.
We tend to see warmth as a symbol of kindness and positivity. It’s contrasted to coldness which is a metaphor for someone who is aloof and uncaring. We have coldness idioms for this, like “cold-hearted” and “frosty reception”, which each point to the idea that the cold is equated with lack of emotion.
Thus, you’ll often see evil characters as being ones that live in wintery climates, such as the white witch in Narnia who spreads winter wherever she goes, or the evil army from Game of Thrones who live north of the wall where there is a ‘forever winter’.
Despite the fact that hell is supposedly an inferno, there is also a running trope that winter is a time in which evil flourishes. In Narnia, the endless winter occurs when the witch is at the throne. The dispelling of the witch from her throne leads to the coming of Spring.
A similar trope is seen in Game of Thrones, where the evil hoard brings winter with them as they invade from the north.
We also have Mr. Freeze, the supervillain in the DC comics world who uses a freeze gun to attack Batman and cause mayhem across Gotham City.
We also equate winter with wartime escapades. This is perhaps best encapsulated in the ominous phrase “winter is coming” from the Game of Thrones franchise. Here, winter is both literal (the Night King will bring winter to the North) as well as figurative – it’s not winter that’s the key problem, but the fact the Night King will bring war to the land.
Other winter war stories are Battle of the Bulge (based on a true war) and The Huntsman: Winter’s War. The backdrop of winter emphasizes the pain and discomfort of the wars in these films.
Winter is often a backdrop to epic struggles. Films like Battle of the Bulge and The Grey use winter to emphasize pain and struggle. Similarly, a central theme in multiple chapters of Band of Brothers is the pain of winter, which at times overshadows the actual war itself.
Furthermore, adventures like climbing Everest and making it to the South Pole are stories of triumph over the pain and physical threats that winter throws up.
We’ll often see winter as a backdrop to psychological struggle as well. A character going through a hard time will often be seen stuck indoors with the winter outdoors, empathizing with our protagonist’s mood.
In contrast to the above symbolism that tends to cast winter as a time of struggle, pain, and war, we also have the counternarrative of winter as a comfortable, cozy time of year.
For people who love winter, they might highlight in their minds the symbolism of comfort. When winter comes, we can enjoy hot chocolate drinks by the fire while we watch the beautiful white landscape outside. Lying under the rugs and warming by the fire are some of the great comforts of life!
Winter could, in many ways, be a welcome moment to retreat into home and recuperate, particularly if you’re an introvert who prefers the comfort indoors over hot summer days.
The ‘magic of winter’ is closely connected to Christmas, a time of year that is supposed to feel uplifting and magical.
There are many Hallmark-style films that emphasize this sense of magical winters. They will often have whistful and mystical music (think: Harry Potter theme song) as a backdrop to a story of miracles and new love that come to you during Christmastime.
Perhaps the most quintessential example here is the ‘Christmas miracle’ concept where something unexpectedly lovely occurs on Christmas day (such as a family member making their way home). At the same time, snow might start falling from the sky as a further reiteration of Christmas magic.
The winter sports niche is a particularly extreme sub-genre for sports enthusiasts. Backcountry skiing, snowboarding, ice climbing, and dog sledding are sports known for their extreme risk and extreme reward.
Winter is a necessity for these sports to occur, but is also the symbolic backdrop that emphasizes and reiterates the ‘extremeness’ of the moment. The fact you need to wear thick outfits simply to survive and that you’re in an environment that will kill you if you don’t take refuge add to this sense that there’s something more extreme in winter than any other time of year.
11. Playfulness (Snow)
Winter can also be a time for play. The day it snows, you’ll see people flocking outside to throw snow into the air and ride toboggans down hills. We have sayings for this, like “winter wonderland”, which refers to the idea of winter being something that’s lovely.
Other ways winter symbolizes playfulness include snowball fights and snowmen, which each invoke a sense of childishness and joyfulness.
Playfulness is also a feature in snow symbolism.
The dominant winter symbolism is that of sadness, inwardness, and personal struggle. We often see films and literature using winter as a backdrop during the sad moments in a character’s life.
But there are other key symbols, like that of war and oppression, that are very common in epic stories, like Frozen, Game of Thrones, and Narnia.
And then there is a counternarrative of winter as a time of happiness, playfulness, and even magic. We regularly see this in stories of Christmas and Hallmark love films.
I’m a Scorpio and I love the outdoors. My spirit animal? It’s the black horse, of course! It symbolizes inner strength and is a majestic sidekick.