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Friday, December 7, 2018

Snowmen: a modern-day pasttime or ancient ritual?

by Donna Hatch

Recently on one of my writers groups had a lively discussion regarding whether or not people built snowmen during the Regency. After all, it seems such a natural thing to do with a practically limitless source of building materials. Surely people had as strong a desire then as they do now to build snowmen, forts, animals, and simple snowballs to throw at one another using the nature’s art supplies. However, often our assumptions about what has "always been" is incorrect, hence the discussion.
It turns out, the idea of snowmen is ageless. Children of all ages have built snowmen since the beginning of man. The Etymology dictionary says the word snowman wasn't in print until 1827 but it is such a natural term that it likely appeared in speech ages before anyone thought to write about children (or adults) playing in the snow.

In 2007, Bob Eckstein, the author of The History of the Snowman: From the Ice Age to the Flea Market, told NPR that in writing his book, “...snowman-making actually was a form of folk art. Mankind was making folk art like this for ages, and…maybe it’s one of man’s oldest forms of art…The further back you go, you find that people were really fascinated with snowmen.”

Eckstein says that building snowmen was “a very popular activity in the Middle Ages…after a snow came down and dumped all these free-art supplies in front of everyone’s house.” The earliest known representation of a snowman dates to that era, drawn in a 1380 A.D. Book of Hours.

 Readers Digest reports in 1494, Michelangelo was commissioned by Piero di Lorenzo de’ Medici, the Gran Maestro of Florence, to create his art with snow. According to art historian Giorgio Vasari, “de’ Medici had Michelangelo make in his courtyard a statue of snow, which was very beautiful.” Sadly, no one seems to have drawn it for posterity.

The Wikipedia page for Snowman shows a European woodcut from the 1500s of people dancing around a snowman. With this many sources, building snowmen was surely an ageless pastime when enough snow arrived on the scene.

The only real trouble with historical characters is that there wasn't that much snow in all parts of England every year. However, if a place had enough snow, it stands to reason that children--as well as playful adults--would have built whatever they could and given it an appropriate name.

Do you still run out and play in the snow during the first big snowfall?


1 comment:

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