The Snowman: A Holiday History and International Phenomenon

When we see a snowy winter wonderland there are many things we want to do right away.  Of course, we need to shovel the sidewalk but we also want to make a snow angel, have a snowball fight, or our favorite, build a snowman! Snowmen are a popular theme for Christmas and winter decorations and also in children's media. Many of us enjoyed showing Frosty the Snowman to our children around the Holidays.  So when was the first snowman? What is the history? Are snowmen the same around the world? We had to find out as we head into this holiday season.

A Snowy History

The first proof documented snowman was in 1380. However, we can take a pretty good guess that for as long as there has been snow, people have enjoyed playing with it and quite possibly making art out of it. 

In the book, The History of the Snowman, Bob Eckstein shares his research on “one of humanity’s earliest forms of folk art during several years of research around the world”.  There are a few fun facts we learned in his book: 

  1. Snowmen were a phenomenon in the Middle Ages, built with great skill and thought. Some were created by famous artists, including a 19-year-old Michelangelo, who in 1494 was commissioned by the ruler of Florence, Italy, to sculpt a snowman in his mansion’s courtyard. 
  2. The Miracle of 1511 - The city of Brussels was covered in snowmen. For the people of Brussels, this was their Woodstock, a defining moment of artistic freedom. They were protesting the political climate using the art supply that fell from the sky. The citizenry constructed life-sized snow statues on every street corner, which included politically-charged displays and some XXX scenes.
  3. In the Schenectady Massacre of 1690, two soldiers guarding their gate left a pair of snowmen at their post to protect the town when they left to get out of a blizzard - unknown to them, a contingent of 210 French Canadian soldiers and Native Americans were approaching. The soldiers were unfazed by the snowmen and invaded the fort, killing 60 villagers.
  4. Every year since 1818, the people of Zurich, Switzerland, celebrate the beginning of spring by blowing up a snowman. On the third Monday of April, the holiday Sechseläuten is kicked off when a cotton snowman called the Böögg is stuffed with dynamite and paraded through town by bakers, blacksmiths, and other tradesmen who throw bread and sausages to the crowds. The parade ends with the Böögg being placed on a 40-foot pile of scrap wood. After the bells of the Church of St. Peter have chimed six times, representing the passing of winter, the pile is lit. When the snowman explodes, winter is considered officially over—the shorter the combustion, the longer summer is said to be.

Snowmen Around the World

We know our version, let’s call it the classic? In many places, typical snowmen consist of three large snowballs of different sizes with some additional accoutrements for facial and other features. But, there is also a wide variety of other styles. Common accessories include branches for arms and a rudimentary smiley face, with a carrot used for a nose. Clothing, such as a hat or scarf, may be included. 

In Japan, snowmen are made with two balls, one big and one small atop it, and without arms. They are to resemble the daruma doll, which brings good luck. Korea also makes their snowmen with only two balls. 

The Snowman: A Holiday History and International PhenomenonJapanese snowman (above)

The Snowman: A Holiday History and International Phenomenon

Korean snowmen (above)

In China, going back to the 7th-century, Buddha statues  are carved out of snow for families to worship in place of marble or wood. 

The Snowman: A Holiday History and International PhenomenonChinese snowman (above)

According to wikipediaThe record for the world's largest snowman was set in 2008 in Bethel, Maine. The snow-woman stood 122 feet 1 inch (37.21 m) in height, and was named in honor of Olympia Snowe, a U.S. Senator representing the state of Maine.

The Snowman: A Holiday History and International Phenomenon​​

World's Tallest Snowman, Bethel Maine (above)