The sometimes nefarious history of the snowman

Jayne B. Stearns

This past week, heavy winter snowstorms dropped more than 14 inches of snow across the southeast, shutting down our nation's capital, leaving half a million people without electricity and three people dead. Airlines canceled thousands of flights. Vehicles were left stranded in the middle of the road, and parts of Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and DC were declared states of emergencies. It was the first storm of 2022, and it was a biggie.

Despite the states of emergencies, the school closures, and the crippling mayhem these storms tend to create, one simple but happier truth remained: someone, somewhere, was building a snowman.

Snowmen have been around for thousands of years and have quite the storied past. Some of that past is as innocent as the little mitten-clad hands that form the snow into human likenesses. Some of it is shocking.

The earliest recorded snowmen

The snowman first emerged in history during the Middle Ages and served a dual purpose for the medieval psyche. On the one hand, that plague-ridden society required a stooge on which they could project the sins of their fathers, a sacrificial lamb to pummel with snowballs. But, on the other hand, building a snowman was a way for their community to embrace the brighter side of the oppressive winter months where starvation, poverty, disease, and other life-threatening conditions ruled their days and nights.

According to Bob Eckstein in his book, The History of the Snowman, the earliest known documentation of a snowman's existence was an illustration in a manuscript called The Book of Hours, a Christian devotional book from 1380. However, this illustration added an anti-Semitic twist to the snowy lore and didn't depict the jolly holiday event one expects when one thinks of snowman-making. Instead, it was a Jewish snowman melting near a fire, with the accompanying passage describing the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.
Koninklijke Bibliotheek Book of Hours snowman illustrationKoninklijke Bibliotheek Book of Hours snowman illustration

Then, fast forward almost a century to 1494 when the prince, Piero the Unfortunate, commissioned Michaelangelo to build a snowman in the Medici courtyard. Except for one art critic from the time, little was written about this snowman, other than it was, like everything else Michaelangelo produced, astonishingly beautiful. The great artist was only nineteen years old at the time.

Over the centuries, building snowmen became festive community events where townspeople strolled among these figures made of snow, listened to music, and shared homemade goods.

Snowmen have been used to make political statements, like the Miracle of 1511, when the townspeople of Brussels, Belgium, created an art installation of over 100 snowmen to declare their dissatisfaction with the current political regime.

And the first recorded snowman in the United States? It memorialized one of the bloodiest battles in American history, The Massacre of 1690, and the deaths of 60 villagers when a band of Native Americans and Frenchmen attacked Fort Schenectady. According to oral tradition, two guards left their post at the gate to imbibe at the local pub and left two snowmen to guard the frozen open gates. But, unfortunately, it didn't deter the attacking armies.

Snowmen have been the guests of honor at festive events; some have embodied political movements. Our greatest artists have created snowmen masterpieces, while other creations led to death and disparaging circumstances. Nevertheless, making snowmen is one of the oldest forms of folk art and one of the few activities we still hold in common with our ancestors.

So, maybe, keep these things in mind the next time the snow falls. Your snowman isn't made just of snow; it's made from the depths of human experience.

Eckstein, Bob. (2007). The History of the Snowman. Gallery Books.

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Jayne is a freelance writer, published poet, and award-winning playwright who specializes in writing human interest stories and anything else that satisfies a multitude of curiosities.

Holyoke, MA

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