Regulars and Shorts

Folk Culture: Snowmen

By Claire Boerigter

A long, storied tradition.
by Clare Boerigter

We’ve all grown accustomed to it over the years: the sudden appearance of snow people in front lawns, some with the quiet dignity of the children’s classic The Snowman, others with the deranged look of a Calvin and Hobbes’ creation.

In Anchorage, citizens witness the yearly return of Billy Powers’ controversial Snowzilla, still built annually despite the cease and desist order issued against it in 2008. A similar towering figure was erected five years ago in Bethel, Maine, where residents constructed the world’s largest snow person, snow woman Olympia, who stood 122 feet tall, weighed a whopping 13,000,000 pounds and used 16 skis for eyelashes.

Best snow for building

No matter what sort of snowman you’re looking forward to building this winter, the type of snow you use is key. Snow approaching the melting point—moist and compact —will serve much better than fluffy powder or dense crust. Typically, a warm afternoon following a sizeable snowfall makes for the best snowman conditions, as snow will be plentiful and packable.

Begin with a snowball. Roll the ball until you’ve attained the desired size and shape; end with three spheres of varying size, which you can then stack. This is the tradition in North America and Europe. In Japan and East Asia, the snow figures, called yuki daruma, are made up of just two.

Snow people are customarily decorated with carrots for noses, and coal, charcoal or stones serving as eyes, and sticks for arms. The colossal Olympia’s arms are two 30-foot spruce trees. In Japan, where—according to Bob Eckstein, author of The History of Snowmen—snowmen actually outnumber the population of northern Japanese towns for part of the season, snow people are decorated with candles.

History of the snow race

If you feel a sense of accomplishment after finishing your snowman this year, then good, you’ve earned it: You are now part of the long and storied snowman tradition. No one knows when the first of the snow people appeared, but the earliest known artistic rendering appears in the medieval Book of Hours, around 1380. And although you might feel some sympathy, as winter passes, for your melting snow person, never fear. As Eckstein discovered, at the beginning of every April in Zurich, the Swiss (those supposed bastions of armed neutrality) celebrate the passing of winter by using explosives to blow up an innocent snowman, assuring a speedy and spectacular end to the season’s chilly symbol.

Clare Boerigter is senior at Grinnell College and an intern at CATALYST magazine.

This article was originally published on November 28, 2013.