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"In these Brangelina- and Tomkat-saturated times, it's hard to believe a celebrity on the order of the snowman has gone centuries without a proper biography. Thankfully Bob Eckstein has righted this wrong with his charming and elbow-the-guy-on-the-bus-next-to-you fascinating tale of the world's first true arbiter of cool." — Brian Farnham, editor-in-chief, Time Out New York
"Fascinating and entertaining. The snowman meant very little to me, but now he's fraught with meaning." — Len Belzer, host of the nationally syndicated radio show The Comedy Hour
"Thoroughly researched, lavishly illustrated. There's more to the snowman than meets the eye." — David Smith, New York Public Library
snowman: A figure of a person made from packed snow, usually formed by piling large snowballs on top of each other. - The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language
The era we currently live in is The Age of Expansion, a time of grandeur when the snowman was never bigger. Our society's stance on size is that it still matters. From SUVs to plasma-screen TVs to McMansions to six-foot heroes, living large is being in charge. Putting deli meats aside, today we all want to make an entrance with class, and right now that means the largest diamond, the biggest pecs, the largest breasts, and the most headroom of any sedan on the market. This preoccupation carries over to Christmas decorations, which have gone to another level - it's not enough to keep up with the Joneses; it's necessary to squash them like a bug. So it's no surprise that our snowmen now need to be either a world-record holders or rubbernecking freaks of nature. Snowman contests, snowman festivals, marathons, lollapaloozas ... like much else today, if it's not a spectacle, don't bother.
Today if you want a snowman for your lawn, you drive to the store. In an attempt to find another angle to cash in on the holidays, price clubs and better stores everywhere are well stocked with inflatable snowmen and snowman "kits." In this get-it-done-before-it-snows, fast-paced world of ours, there are different brands of snowman kits to choose from, all with prefabricated hats, buttons, pseudo coal and carrots conveniently packaged in a box so you or your kids don't have to get up and look for them yourself. Yes, everyone's snowman is going to look the same, but think of the time we're all saving. We're all too busy to go out and make snowmen, and, besides, what's the point of making one less than twelve feet tall? The buying of the largest possible snowman comes on the heels of The White Trash Years (1975-2000) as a backlash against all those cutesy gift-shop snowmen we all got sick of up to here. But that's the cynical side of the story. The positive spin on this is that "Mr. Huge" and other inflatable rubber substitutes of the real McCoy finally give those who live in temperate regions the joy of having a snowman in their front yard. Think of the children. Think of the money.
Speaking of which, what about snowman making as sport and its gambling opportunities? It's all part of The Age of Expansion, when the snowman continues to blaze trails for tourism. Hundreds of snowman festivals and contests take place around the world every year and continue to grow. In Pennsylvania, there's an annual charity ice golf tournament on Lake Wallenpaupack after it freezes that includes a contest where golfers tee it up and aim for the vulnerable "Wally, the Snowman" down the fairway.
There are hundreds of similar events throughout the world. The biggest is the Ice Lantern Festival (Ice and Snow World) in Harbin. This bitterly cold, northern Chinese city, once known mainly for its expensive exotica cuisine of bear paws, deer nostrils, and white Siberian tiger testicles, is now recognized as the ice sculpture capital, attracting artists from around the world. Each year millions travel to the "Ice City," where the temperature stays below freezing nearly half the year. Held from the beginning of January to the end of February, thousands of enormous sculptures and buildings are exhibited and paraded on floats through the city. Although these snow shows date back to 1963, snow sculpture there dates back to the Qing dynasty about 350 years ago. During the Manchu days, "ice lanterns" were carved and then lit by placing candles in them.
A similar tradition is also enjoyed today throughout Japan, where snowmen have candles placed in their stomachs during the many snowman festivals that take place every winter. Each year snowmen outnumber, at least for a while, the populations of northern Japanese towns. But are they big snowmen? Well, no, but rumor has it that the Japanese are eyeing that big prize, the world's largest snowman, an honor they enjoyed for almost four years thanks to a ninety-six-foot-tall snowman. Then, in February of 1999, Bethel, a town in Maine, placed itself on the map by breaking the coveted record, spending fourteen days piling snow skyward into what would become Angus, the King of the Mountain, named after the Maine governor, Angus King.
Extreme snowman making has come a long way since the day a bunch of frat boys from Dartmouth made the thirty-eight-foot-high Eleazer Wheelock, the headline act for the 1939 Winter Carnival. Today, making a huge snowman involves cranes, teamsters, and insurance. Don't even think about making a snowball the size of an igloo without a working permit. In Bethel, their record-breaking snowman required sixty volunteers, ranging from kindergartners to senior citizens and the cooperation of the whole town. Angus's arms were made with two ten-foot evergreens. Volunteers created a mouth with six automobile tires and eyes with four-foot wreaths. The local elementary school made a six-foot carrot out of chicken wire and muslin and then painted it orange by having each student place his or her handprint on it. When finished, Angus reached 113 feet and entered the The Guinness Book of Records, attracting thousands of visitors and appearing on Good Morning America. Afterward, the town held a contest to guess when Angus would melt, and by mid-March, Angus had become "The Leaning Tower of Bethel."
Not every large snowman dies a quiet, slow death. Each year in Zurich, the Swiss celebrate Sechseläuten by using large amounts of explosives to blow up an innocent snowman. Always on the third Monday in April, bakers, butchers, blacksmiths, and other tradesmen parade on horses and throw bread and sausages to the crowds. In return for free meat, girls decorate the riders with garlands made of spring flowers. Sechseläuten (which means "six bells ringing") comes from the tradition that, at six o'clock, the guild members put down their tools and call it a day. Meanwhile, the Boogg is schlepped through town. The Boogg is a large, cotton-wool snowman with a corncob pipe, button nose, and two eyes made out of coal - he looks the same every year because the same guy has been making the Boogg for over thirty-five years. Unfortunately for Mr. Boogg, he's filled with firecrackers and plopped onto a forty-foot pile of very flammable scrap wood. For him, things will only get worse. After the bells of the Church of St. Peter have chimed six times, representing the passing of winter, the townspeople light the pile and watch the carnage. It is believed the shorter the combustion, the hotter and longer the summer will be. When the head of the snowman explodes to smithereens, winter is considered officially over.
Excerpted from The History of the Snowman by Bob Eckstein Copyright © 2007 by Bob Eckstein. Excerpted by permission.
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The Search for the First Snowman
THE MODERN SNOWMAN
The Age of Expansion: The Twenty-first Century
The White Trash Years: 1975-2000
The Hollywood Years: There's No Business Like Snow Business
The Golden Age of Advertising Since the Early Twentieth Century: Snow Sells
The Dean Martin Years: Drunken Debauchery and Other Misgivings
Snowman Deconstructionism: Literary Circles
The Birth of a Media Star: 1870s-1910s
Snowman Photography since the Mid-Nineteenth Century: Mr. Sound Bite
A Comic Interlude of the Best Snowmen Cartoons
THE RENAISSANCE SNOWMAN
The Revolution of 1870: The Snowman's French Roll
Made in America: The Snow Angel of 1856
Eighteenth-Century Snow and Ice Sculpture: From Russia with Love Handles
Early American Snowmen in the Seventeenth Century: New World, Fresh Snow
Snowman Exploration in the Late Sixteenth Century
Belgian Expressionism: The Miracle of 1511
Early Classism in Snow Sculpture: Politically Incorrect Fun
Italian Snowballs from the Fifteenth Century: The Two-Ball Theory
The First Snowman
The Ice Age: Who Came First, the Caveman or the Snowman?
The Complete Meltdown
Posted March 28, 2008
Deep into The History of the Snowman is a gorgeous fresco of robed and hosed medieval folk hurling snowballs at each other outside a castle. It's one of those images you just don't learn in Art History unless you've gone on a tour of the castles of Northern Italy. Its presence in this book exposes just how much wonderful history of playful or political human interaction with snow has remained unexplored, untaught. The book is funny, enlightening, and occasionally a little dense with its facts (so many - so unknown!). It is a quick read (oodles of info don't slow it down) and filled with surprising pictures of snowfolk, both contemporary and historical (from Old Dutch and Italian to Charles Addams). In both art school and meteorology it deserves to become a standard text, one of those professors turn to when students get too serious about their subjects. And its inclusion of the true olde-tyme snowball-fight fresco will warm my heart for years to come.
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Posted December 27, 2009