Snowmen are usually pretty innocuous: three big balls of snow stacked on top of one another, a couple sticks for arms, maybe a couple eyes, and a big smile. They’re made in a few minutes and take days or weeks to melt, a symbol that says that at least someone had a fun time outside during the cold, gray days of winter. But, as any bored teenager can tell you, snowmen don’t have to be innocuous. If you take a quick look through history and media, you’ll see we’ve done a lot with snowmen in the past 700 or so years.
The First Snowman
Writer and illustrator Bob Eckstein spent six years of his life trying to find the world’s first snowman and detailed his efforts and findings in his 2007 book, The History of the Snowman. I will not spoil his book by saying where he found the evidence of the first snowman, but it dates back to Europe in 1308. Eckstein wrote in his book, “To so spectacularly and audaciously insult two religions at the same time is not easy-but this is where we find the bizarre, unimaginable beginning for the snowman. Today’s snowman, the safe, nondenominational choice for the holidays, has come a long way.”
The Miracle of 1511
Chances are pretty good you won’t read the Dutch book De sneeuwpoppen van 1511, which tells the story of the Miracle of 1511: During six straight weeks of snow in Brussels in the winter of 1511, the town held a festival in which residents built more than 100 snow people in various scenes. In The History of the Snowman, Bob Eckstein writes that some of the snow people scenes were some of the earliest examples of both political cartoons, and pornography. So, while there aren’t photos of The Miracle of 1511, you can probably imagine some of it.
The Abominable Snowman/Yeti
The history of the Abominable Snowman goes back to before the 1800s in the legends of several Himalayan peoples, but it really picked up in the 20th century when climbers started to turn their attention to the Himalaya. Eric Shipton documented some mysterious prints in the snow on his 1951 Everest attempt. Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay saw some prints on their 1953 climb. Slawomir Rawicz references something like a yeti in his 1956 book, The Long Walk. Hillary returned in 1960 with an expedition to collect evidence of the yeti. Don Whillians claimed he saw something resembling a yeti on his Annapurna climb in 1970. And so on, although no one’s ever captured one.
Frosty the Snowman
As you might already know, Frosty the Snowman was a jolly happy soul with a corncob pipe and a button nose, and two eyes made out of coal. He allegedly came to life one day when some kids put a silk top hat on his head. He danced, laughed, and sang with the children, and was running here and there all around the village square, at which time he reportedly angered a traffic cop and had to leave town.
Of all the creative snowman/snowperson builders in the world, 6-year-old Calvin of Bill Watterson’s comic Calvin & Hobbes is the master. Calvin may have never built a “normal” snowman in the 10-year run of the comic; his snowpeople were art installations, and they always harassed his parents, communicated his distaste for eggplant casserole, or poked fun at the art world.
In February 2008, residents of Bethel, Maine, banded together to build the world’s largest snowman ever-which was a snowwoman, named after Maine Senator Olympia Snowe. They used a crane to build the giant snowwoman, which stood 122 feet, 1 inch tall and didn’t melt until July of that year.
Olaf from Frozen
Perhaps you saw the animated Disney film Frozen. Perhaps you’re a parent and you watched it more than once, or half-watched it while your kids watched it dozens upon dozens of times over the past 13 months since its premiere. Perhaps you, through repeated exposure, know all the words to all the songs in the film, because your kids do. Perhaps you, like many critics, think Olaf the snowman is the best part of the movie.
Jack Frost, Jack Frost
Snowmen appear in dozens of Hollywood movies, most notably the 1969 TV special Frosty the Snowman, which still airs today and is well-loved. Tell you what’s not: Michael Keaton’s snowman character in the 1998 movie Jack Frost, who is a reincarnation of a young boy’s deceased father. Which may not seem like the greatest idea in the first place, but…well, Roger Ebert, who disliked relatively few movies (and reviewed thousands of them), hated the movie. Mostly because he hated the snowman. In his 2000 book I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie, Ebert wrote: “Jack Frost could have been co-directed by Orson Welles and Steven Spielberg and still be unwatchable, because of that damned snowman. The snowman gave me the creeps. Never have I disliked a movie character more.”