From children’s favourite to climate change victim, the snowman is a complex and fragile character. For centuries he has been a core part of every good winter in the Alps. But where does this ancient tradition come from – and what does the future hold? We set out to discover the story behind an endagered species.
PHOTOS: JAKOB SCHMITT
In the winter of 2008, sixty local residents gathered in the small town of Bethel in the US state of Maine to set a new world record. Aided by mechanical diggers and cranes, they used over 4,000 tonnes of snow to create a 37-metre-high figure complete with arms (two full-size fir trees), a mouth (six old car tyres), eyes (two huge wreaths) and even eyelashes (eight pairs of skis). “Olympia, Queen of the Mountain”, as she was known, kept watch over the town for several months before spring arrived and she slowly melted away. Until recently she held the world record for the tallest ever snowman – or, to be precise, snow-woman.
Since then there have been plenty of other weird and wonderful records set in the world of snowman building. In 2016, for example, Canadian scientists made a “Nano Man”. This tiny “snowman” made from silicon dioxide (quartz) measured 1/20th of a human hair from head to toe. Invisible to the naked eye, the only way to admire this mini-masterpiece was under a powerful microscope. While laboratories such as the one in Canada offer perfectly controlled conditions for making snowmen in all shapes and sizes, Mother Nature is more unpredictable. Meteorologists have declared each of the last ten years to be the “warmest year on record”. The consequences of climate change are all too apparent, even in Tirol, where winter starts later and finishes earlier than ever before. However, as the saying goes, where there’s a will there’s a way – and if there’s none of the white stuff around, “snowmen” can always be built from other things: quartz, sand, hay bales, marzipan, marshmallows, melons and even sea urchins provide all the raw materials you need for a three-tiered figure.
Snowmen are not just great fun for kids but have also served a 3D metaphor throughout human history. Changes in their meaning and appearance have moved with the times – “like a deep-frozen Forrest Gump,” according to Bob Eckstein, author of The History of the Snowman. Eckstein spent months in libraries and archives researching this topic in a quest to bring more light to an often misunderstood character.
It is impossible to tell where and when the world’s first snowman was built. What we do know, however, is that one of the earliest snowmen was created by none other than Michelangelo himself. Piero de’ Medici, Lord of Florence, asked the 19-year-old Michelangelo to form a man out of the snow which had fallen on the Italian city in January 1494. Sadly there is no way of knowing what this proto-snowman looked like, but based on his other works we can assume it was pretty good. In the centuries that followed the snowman began to appear in literature – often as a tragic figure. In Richard II, Shakespeare describes how the king – after being forced to renounce the throne – wanted to melt into the ground “like a snowman standing before the sun”. In 1767 Christian Felix Weiße wrote a nursery rhyme comparing the snowman to a “vain brat”: all show, no substance. The most frequent depictions of the snowman were found in art, where he was the personification of winter – a cold and cruel time of year, particularly during the 700-year-long Little Ice Age with its freezing, interminable winters and cold, wet summers full of famine, war and revolution. A 1778 etching by Daniel Chodowiecki shows four children throwing snowballs at a snowman symbolising winter. Customs developed in the alpine countries where locals would wear demonic masks and loud cow bells as they processed through the village to drive out the evil spirits of winter and usher in the spring.
It was towards the end of the Little Ice Age that the snowman gained a softer, more rounded appearance. In the early 19th century the bourgeoisie discovered a new-found love of nature. Motifs of untouched snowfields and intricate ice crystals become popular in contemporary art. In 1860 the illustrator Gustav Süß drew a snowman with a rather intimidating Bismarckesque moustache, but surrounded by happy children. The invention after the World Wars of new technologies such as heating systems and tinned food made winter a less fearsome prospect. Snowmen, in turn, became a symbol of the joys of winter, particularly for families. They would often be depicted in scenes showing children enjoying a snowball fight, skating on frozen lakes, whizzing through the landscape on a toboggan or simply gazing up into the snowy sky with red cheeks and a broad smile.
Considering their popularity among children, it is little wonder that snowmen soon became motifs on everything from Christmas cards – smiling in the mountains, chilling on the beach – to street advertisements. Like Father Christmas, the humble snowman was used to sell pretty much everything: sweets, cucumbers, tissues – the list is endless. Over the years he has also lent his form to all manner of useful and useless objects, including snowman soaps, snowman candles, snowman ties and snowman serviette holders. He has appeared in countless films, not always in friendly form. The movie Jack Frost features a fearsome snowman who roams the neighbourhood killing and raping. He is also a firm favourite in family-friendly comdies and animated films – though, with the notable exception of Olaf the Snowman in the second part of Disney’s Frozen, he almost always melts away as the story draws to a close.
In the 21st century the snowman has also become a symbol of something else: climate change. Like the lonely polar bear cut adrift on an ice shelf, the melting snowman has come to symbolise the challenge facing humanity’s survival on Planet Earth. He is an endangered species – a victim of global warming. Not even on World Snowman Day, 18 January, is there a guarantee of snow in the Alps. Yet the modern snowman doesn’t have to be a victim – like a dove, he could be a symbol of peace (or at least a symbol of environmental sustainability). After all, everyone loves a snowman. As soon as winter arrives it is only a question of time before snowmen begin to pop up: in back gardens, next to roads, at the bottom of ski lifts. He comes in many different shapes and sizes, but he is instantly recognisable. Like humankind itself, he can be many different colours: pure white (freshly made), dark brown (exposed to traffic fumes), golden yellow (in the evening sun), blue (in the shade). The perfect listener, he’s always chilled out and doesn’t smoke or drink – though he’ll be more than happy to hold your beer.
Proof, if any were needed, that the snowman is well worth fighting for. In February 2020 the ski resort of Riesneralm in Styria set a new world record for the world’s biggest snowman (albeit with a little bit of cheating in the form of a six-metre-tall hat) using snow cannons, mechanical diggers and high-power cutting machines. He measured 38.04 metres in height, though his weight was just one seventh of the previous record holder “Olympia, Queen of the Mountain”. Here in Tirol, the local newspaper Tiroler Tageszeitung still runs an annual competition to see who can build the best snowman. And everywhere in the region people spend hours upon hours shovelling and shaping snow into friendly figures to welcome visitors. After all, what would winter be without snow and snowmen? Exactly. That’s why we think it is most definitely time to Make Snowmen Great Again!