Saluting the Snowman

Home & Family, Outdoors, Seasonal, Traditions
on January 25, 2009
Heather Bunkers From left: Marie Bunkers, Klaire Kirsch, Kourtney Kirsch, Madalyn Bunkers, Kassidy Kirsch and Monique Bunkers pose with their frozen friends in Rapid City, S.D.

When snow blankets Rapid City, S.D. (pop. 59,607), Maria Bunkers, 8, looks forward to going outside with her sisters and friends to build a snowman.

"The snow that's in the sun is the best," says Maria as she shapes, moist handfuls of snow into a ball after the season's first blizzard, in November. While she and Klaire Kirsch, 8, build a knee-high snowbaby, the older girls roll snowballs around the yard, fattening them with flakes until they're big enough to build a 5-foot snowman.

As Madalyn Bunkers, 13, stacks the heavy snowballs atop one another, the other girls chink them together with snow. After placing the last snowball for the snowman's head, the troupe heads indoors to raid refrigerators and closets for accessories.

"Our rabbit sacrificed his carrot for a nose," says Kourtney Kirsch, 11, giggling.

Monique Bunkers, 9, pokes maraschino cherries into the snowman's face for rosy cheeks and Kassidy Kirsch, 9, creates his crooked grin with pebbles from the Bunker's sandbox. Bundled in scarves and hats and with their twiggy arms open wide, the cold-weather companions invite smiles from passersby until they melt in the warm sunshine.

An ancient art form
"Snowman making is one of man's oldest folk arts," says Bob Eckstein, author of The History of the Snowman, From the Ice Age to the Flea Market. "The art is one of the few activities that modern man shares with his earliest ancestors."

"Man has always wanted to depict an image of himself. It's a natural instinct," says Eckstein, 45, a New York cartoonist and writer who devoted six years to documenting the snowman's history and enduring popularity, a journey through the silly and the sublime as he visited art museums and libraries around the world, and interviewed authorities on art, philosophy, medieval customs and religion.

The earliest snowman illustration Eckstein found is in a religious manuscript, Book of Hours, written about 1380 and preserved at the Royal Library in The Hague, Netherlands. Snow sculpting was popular entertainment during the Middle Ages and a way for artists to display their talents at winter festivals. Even Michelangelo sculpted snow figures in 1494 in Florence, Italy, and during an event that became known as The Miracle of 1511 in Brussels, Belgium, artists and nonartists alike populated the city with 110 snow people in scenes with social and political meaning.

America had its own snow miracle on New Years Day in 1857, when residents of Brattleboro, Vt. (pop. 12,005), awoke to find an 8-foot-tall exquisitely sculpted snowwoman holding a pen and tablet as if recording the year's events. Townspeople credited the statue to an angel, and newspapers publicized the miracle. Eventually, sculptor Larkin Mead took credit for his snow angel.

Melting hearts
The image of the snowman has changed through the centuries. The modern-day snowman resembles the plump button-nosed and coal-eyed Frosty, who debuted in 1949. The familiar icon is such a well-liked character that hundreds of companies have used his image to sell everything from electric razors to life insurance.

"The snowman is a frozen Forrest Gump with this friendly look that the common man can relate to," Eckstein says.

Ken Borton, of Gaylord, Mich. (pop. 3,681), discovered just how snowman-crazy people are after he staked a wooden one in his yard in front of his webcam in 2006. Borton, 50, wanted his urban friends and family to see the bears, deer and turkeys that wander his 175 acres.

"It was kind of boring without wildlife, so I decided to stick something in the scene," Borton says. The snowman was ideal since his wife, Sheryl, collects snowman figurines. Today, more than 2,000 people a day visit his website, and about 20 people a week drop by in person to see the snowman. In 2007, a couple from Scotland flew into the Detroit airport, rented a car and drove four hours in a snowstorm to pose with the wooden celebrity.

"This is a piece of plywood in my backyard that has gained worldwide recognition and love," Borton says. "I don't get it, but I'm having fun."

Let it snow!
Just as in the Middle Ages, snowman building remains a welcome diversion in northern climes during the bleak winter months.

When the snow flies in Brielle, N.J. (pop 4,893), residents celebrate the season by building snowmen garbed as cowboys, football players and firefighters throughout town for an annual snowman contest. Participants submit photos of their creations by March 15 for a chance to win a snow cone machine. Meanwhile, residents in Salem, Ill. (pop. 7,909), have until March 20 to submit photos of their snowmen built in the city's Bryan Memorial Park, where all can enjoy.

Colossal winter fun is what residents of Bethel, Maine (pop. 2,411), had in mind when they created the world's biggest snowman with 8 million pounds of snow in 1999. Residents topped their own record last February with a 13-million-pound snow beauty, Olympia, who towered 122 feet, 1 inch, and could be seen from four miles away. The glamour girl sported eyelashes made from snow skis and ruby lips from painted automobile tires. Schoolchildren fashioned her 6-foot carrot nose from chicken wire and muslin, and stitched a 48-foot-circumference fleece hat to adorn her gigantic head.

"A lot of people like to hibernate in the wintertime and don't like cold, but this is a push back against nature and people saying, 'I can go out in the cold and have fun,'" says Robin Zinchuk, executive director of the Bethel Area Chamber of Commerce.

Mammoth or mini, the snowman's appeal is timeless. "The snowman is a simple portrait of our humanity," Eckstein says.