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HISTORY

The unexpected origins of the Christmas Snowman as symbol of social anger

Snowmen are a winter trademark for obvious reasons, and they’ve been part of our lives for a long time. Here’s the story of the snowman as shown through 15 images.

Snowmen have been with us for a long time. It’s very hard to say when humans first built a snowy statue, but there are a few things we can be sure of. Bob Eckstein, an award-winning illustrator, writer, and cartoonist, did some thorough research about the origins of this elusive and apparently ubiquitous frosty character in his book, The History of the Snowman, where he explored the practice across the world and the ages. He discovered a number of rather fascinating facts, going from the Middle Ages to our present day.

One of the first known depictions of a snowman comes from a 14th-century Book of Hours (they were popular illustrated books used for Christian prayers during this period). Each Book of Hours was unique, so the illustrations varied a lot. This one in particular had an anti-semitic image of what appears to be a burning snowman wearing typical Jewish attire. Yeah, anti-semitism was unfortunately a big thing back then.

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It’s worth considering how snowmen could become so popular even—or, perhaps, specially—during a time of social strife and economic hardship. As with sand castles and other such sculptures, snow is a readily-available material, easy to manipulate, and fun to play with. But it’s also perishable. The amount of thoughtful and impressive humanoid sculptures made with ice and snow is probably staggering, but none of them survived until our day, for obvious reasons. As snow melts, snowmen disappear.

That doesn’t mean the art of building this kind of statues wasn’t a huge thing centuries ago. In fact, in 1494, a young Michelangelo was commissioned to sculpt a snowman for the ruler of Florence. Imagine the quality of the art. What a sight that must have been.

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But that’s not all. Art has always been, at its core, the main vehicle of social expression—social criticism included. Wherever there’s cultural or political conflict, there art finds its most passionate manifestations. And what is now known as the Miracle of 1511 is no exception. The event occurred during a period called the Winter of Death in Brussels, which suffered six consecutive weeks of freezing temperatures. The citizens took to the streets and covered the whole city in wonderfully crafted snowmen.

Many used political motifs and sculpted the frosty figures to express their anger towards Church and State. And, with humans being humans, some snowmen were pornographic, of course. It’s a shame that, with the spring, most of these works of arts were forever lost—but the spirit of the event remained for the annals of history.

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So, it’s clear that, following the example of Michelangelo (who followed the example of his predecessors), many artists have turned to snow to hone their skills. Larkin Mead, the sculptor behind Abraham Lincoln’s Springfield tomb, is another example. On New Year’s Day, 1857, he famously sculpted a astonishing eight-foot statue made of ice and snow in Vermont, much to the delight of people across the world, who heard about the deed from a special in the New York Tribune. Snow statues are unsurprisingly representative of the spirit of the season, after all.

This fact was exploited during the 20th century with the mass popularization of snowmen as children’s marvels. The Frosty the Snowman cartoon was created, and snowmen became official Christmas characters—with an amazingly secular background.

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And there are interesting traditions surrounding them as well. Ever since the 19th century, people in Switzerland have celebrated the coming of the spring by blowing up a snowman. Poor fellow. The holiday is known as Sechseläuten, and the cotton snowman is called Böögg, in case you’re curious.

Given the prevalence of its materials around this time of year, we can expect snowmen—or snowpersons, if you will—to remain part of our holiday cheer for a long time still. It’s an enduring practice, with a proud tradition. Who knows, perhaps another Michelangelo will discover their passion from the unassuming art of creating snowy figures. So keep building them, and have a happy holiday!

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