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The Snowman: A brief history of a winter entertainment

Making snowmen is a near-universal activity for those in northern climates; it is likely even prehistoric. Yet, due to the snowman's transitory nature, there are few visual records of snowmen prior to the 19th and 20th centuries when advertising and print media locked them in time.

A young man and woman build a snowman while holding a coke in a bottle.
Cardboard poster for Coca-Cola "thirst has no season" campaign, 1950s

There are even fewer artifacts that we can specifically attribute to a snowman: buckets, carrots, sticks, berries, and coal are repurposed or return to nature. As with sandcastles, the joy of the snowman is that you don't need special equipment to make one - the snowman is for everyone and only limited by imagination.


The history of making humans, animals, angels, policemen, or other figures out of snow can reveal quite a lot about a specific culture in time, while also providing a kindred link to the past.


Snow Puppets

Before "snowmen," snow figures were called the more inclusive "snow puppets," or snow dolls. "Snow-man" as a proper title can be traced to 1827, but making figures out of snow was as commonplace as they come in recorded history, particularly during the period of the Little Ice Age, which lasted from the fourteenth to the mid-eighteenth centuries. During this period, the climate dipped into cooler temperature, and heavy snowfalls were more frequent.


This four-hundred year stretch is the source for some of the most legendary accounts we have of snow puppets, snow figures, and entertainment for the masses. Snow was the raw material for some of the most talented artists, too. We're told in Giorgio Visari's The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects (1550) that as a boy, Florentine sculptor Baccio Bandinelli (1493-1560) - a contemporary of Michelangelo - was visiting at the studio of the artist, Giolarmo del Buda in Florence. Buda jested that a huge pile of snow in the snow in the Piazza could be sculpted like marble. The boy Baccio agreed, and said:


"I suggest that we should act as if it were marble." And immediately, throwing off his cloak, he set his hands to the snow, and, assisted by other boys, taking away the snow where there was too much, and adding some in other places, he made a rough figure of Marforio lying down, eight braccia (arms) in length. Whereupon the painter and all the others stood marvelling, not so much at what he had done as at the spirit with which he had set his hand to a work so vast, and he so young and so small. (p. 56)


Also in Florence, Visari also tells us that Michelangelo (1475-1564) himself created a "very beautiful" snow sculpture in January of 1494 for his friend and patron, Piero de' Medici. Michelangelo would have been still quite young, and just starting out in his career. Sadly, we have no record of what the sculpture was, only speculation.


That particular snowfall was massive and quite notable, and it's possible that the two accounts above are from the same winter storm, but we do not have the dates for Bandinelli's. In his diary entry for January 20, 1494, Florentian Luca Landucci makes a point of recording the snowstorm, which "lasted from the Ave Maria one morning till the Ave Maria the next, 24 hours." This snowfall also provided the perfect kind of snow and in large quantities, so that "boys [could] make a snow-lion," apparently a common thing to do at this time.


In 1511, another large amount of snow covered Europe, and temperatures fell to below freezing without respite for three months. Dutch Historian Herman Pleij estimates that the area saw below freezing temps from early-November 1510 to February 12, 1511, when a thaw caused flooding. In Brussels, what appears to have been a spontaneous "snow festival" broke out in January, where 110 "sneeuwepoppen" (snow dolls) were created all over town. We know of this snow festival from the sole surviving account, of which only one physical copy survives - a humorous poem written by the Brussels "poet laureate," Jan Smeken. There were mermaids and unicorns, and many figures in rather crude situations, too, likely providing levity during what was a very stressful winter. While we don't know exactly how it started, Pleij speculates that the first snow sculptures were probably created by local artists inspired by the possibilities of the snow - like with Michelangelo and Bandinelli - and then the other townspeople came along for the fun. Local authorities took measures to protect the sculptures from vandalism, which seems to show that they weren't offended by the snow sculptures, at the very least.


The Snowman as Scapegoat

Like the people of Brussels, others have found the snowman to be a useful outlet for creative expression and even a bit of harmless rebellion.


The snowman can be anything, and it is also inanimate, not able to be hurt in any real way. In the case of the Brussels' snow figures, the authorities put temporary restrictions in place because some of the snowmen were suffering all kinds of indignities, like defacing and decapitation. The targets of vandalism in 1511 included representations of St. George, the clerk of the local fish auction, and the figure of a farmer "Bouwen Lanctant," who lost his head three times. He must have been particularly disliked.


But authority figures (like policemen and members of the elite) are often made into effigies. When their representations are built as snowmen - physical and tangible - they are ripe targets for the release of tensions or as the embodiments of wrongdoing, as with scapegoats. [1]

Snowman over the fire, "Book of Hours."

However, sometimes these representations (of elites or "others") can dip in dangerous territory, as can been seen to the left in an illuminated figure from a Book of Hours (1380, Koninklijke Bibliotheek, The Hague). This figure, according to Bob Eckstein, author of The Illustrated History of the Snowman, is one of the oldest known. It is also an early representation of casual anti-semitism, with the distressed snowman in a yarmulke (a prayer skullcap), charring over the fire. While this figure is a representation on paper, as a snowman figure it is also a way to dehumanize Jewish people, with potentially terrible consequences. All together, it's a window into common attitudes of this period of time.


This use of a snowman as a scapegoat isn't restricted to the past. In Switzerland,

there is long standing tradition of exploding a snowman with dynamite or fireworks in the Spring, with the added benefit of predicting the weather of the summer ahead. The Böögg, as it is known (or boogeyman), is an extension of a Spring Equinox tradition, and it "serves as a way to drive out the winter." This more modern tradition is the combination of a old children's festival banishing boogeyman, and the Senchseläuten in Zurich, a traditional spring festival.


The Böögg - with a head full of fireworks - is put on top of a pyre, which is set ablaze. How fast the head of the Böögg explodes first is said to predict the summer weather to come.



Snowmen and snow animals in Asia

One of the first written mentions of snowmen in written history is from an eighth-century Taoist text "Chapter on the creation of icons." (Tung-hsuan ling-pao san-tung feng-tao k'o-chieh ying-shih). In Taoism, humans and the divine interact quite freely, but there are regulations to be followed: to create an icon, the sculptor can choose from eighteen different kinds of materials, including in a section last on the list, "get snow piled up."


This connection with snow figures and religion is seen again with what are called "snow daruma" or "yuki-daruma" in Japan and in other Asian

countries. Yukidaruma are the primary shape of snowmen in this part of the world, even today. This style of snowman (a large snowball, sometimes topped with a single smaller ball) is directly correlated to the figure of the Bodhidharma, a legendary religious figure from the 5th-6th centuries who is credited with bringing Chan Buddhism

A round, red ball, with the bearded face of a man indented into it. The eyes are white circles, with red around them.
A Daruma Doll. The Bodhidharma was also said to have cut off his eyelids, accounting for his baleful stare in representations of him.

to China, known as Zen Buddhism in Japan. (The Bodhidharma is known as "Da Mo" in China, and "Daruma" in Japan.) One widespread account tells how the Bodhidharma sat in a cave looking at a wall for nine years. When he stopped his meditations, his legs had atrophied. After that, he "rolled" himself to Japan and India, spreading his teachings. The Bodhidharma is seated in most of the visual depictions we have, also making him an ideal subject to recreate in snow.



Snow Daruma, or yukidaruma.

1) Hiyoshi Mamoru, Winter, Korea (1950)

2) Utagawa Kunisada, Snow (1820s)

3) Utagawa Hirokage, Dog Stealing a Workman's Meal from a Snow Daruma (1859)


While religion and nature come together with snowmen in Asia, snow was also a readily available medium for simple play and entertainment, as it was in Europe other colder climates. In 17th-19th-Century Japan, the "ukiyo-e" art genre showed many kinds of entertainment, a genre not really replicated in China. Translated as "Picture[s] from the Floating World," ukiyo-e paintings and woodblock prints are known for colorful images of women, entertainers, nature, and people at play. Ukiyo-e paintings of snow entertainment show some of the most varied uses of snow to create figures.



Along with yukidaruma, these ukiyo-e prints also show what is still a pastime in Japan, making yukiusagi, or "snow rabbits." In the bottom right of this piece below by Utagama Toyoharu (1735-1814), you can see a child rolling a ball, (possibly for a yukidaruma), as well as what looks like another child with a white rabbit on a tray (also bottom right), a bunny made out of snow. In this scene below, we see what would have been a likely grouping of winter entertainments for those who could afford such leisure.

And yet, like snow figures around the world, the yukiusagi, however, can be made by anyone with the right consistency of snow, a cultural icon that transcends time, age, and gender barriers.


A Pastime Beyond Time and Place

Snowpuppets, snowdolls, snowmen - these figures are molded out of imagination, and often reflect the cultural and societal milieu of a time and place. They are also rarely made out of obligation or "work", and instead they are figures of fun and play. This enjoyment of the world, of nature, is something that we all can relate to, even if we didn't grow up in colder climates. The snowman always retains some element of innocence and whimsy, regardless of what age we make them. A constant throughout our lives, throughout time, and despite geography.


Russian postcards of snowmen, courtesy of the Museum of Russian Art in Minneapolis, MN.

Snowmen in Russia are typically made with buckets for a hat, and carrots and coal. In the space age of the 1950s and 60s, snow rockets were common.

"The Museum of Russian Art stands with the people of Ukraine and urges Russia to cease hostilities immediately and withdraw."

Also included, postcards from Victorian England.

 

Do Your Own Research

LEARN MORE




 

[1] The figure of the "scapegoat" is an ancient one, part of the Jewish rituals described in the Hebrew Bible book of Leviticus associated with Yom Kippur, the holy Day of Atonement. In the early 16th century, William Tyndale translated the Hebrew Bible into English, and "scapegoat" comes from the Hebrew word "azazel," one of two goats sacrificed as a way of atoning for the community's sins. The azazel goat is either thrown off a cliff, or sent into the wilderness. For Tyndale, this meant that the goat had "escaped."



PRIMARY SOURCES

Jan Smeken, Pamphlet, "D'wonder dat in die stat van Bruesel ghemaect was van claren ijse en snee, die wel gheraect was" (1511).


Luca Landucci, A Florentine diary from 1450 to 1516, (Dutton: J.M. Dent & Sons, 1927).


Giorgio Visari, The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, 10 volumes, Trans. Gaston Du C. de Ver (London: MacMillan & Co., 1915).


"Chapter on the Creation of Icons (Tung-hsuan ling-pao san-tung feng-tao k'o-chieh ying-shih)," translation found in Florian C. Reiter, The Visible Divinity: The Sacred Icon in Religious Taoism, "News of the Society for Natural History and Ethnology of East Asia/Hamburg (NOAG)" 144 (1988), pp. 69-70.



SECONDARY SOURCES

Bob Eckstein, The Illustrated History of the Snowman (Globe Pequot Press, 2018).


Herman Pleij, De sneeuwpoppen van 1511. Literatuur en stadscultuur tussen middeleeuwen en moderne tijd (Meulenhoff, Amsterdam 1988).


Florian C. Reiter, The Visible Divinity: The Sacred Icon in Religious Taoism, "News of the Society for Natural History and Ethnology of East Asia/Hamburg (NOAG)" 144 (1988): 59-80. This article also contains the translation of the "Chapter on the Creation of Icons (Tung-hsuan ling-pao san-tung feng-tao k'o-chieh ying-shih)."


ZUZANNA STAŃSKA, KATE WOJTCZAK, Most Beautiful Ukiyo-e Winter Views of Japan, Daily Art Magazine.



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