Historical Winter Pastimes

Historical Winter Pastimes

"Snow Effigies" - The Origin of Building Snowmen

2/16/2024 | Angela Whitlock, CSRA

Historically, the snowman is a symbol of joy and festivity that has appeared within many cultures prominent to Champaign County. 

Snowmen were often referred to as “snow effigies.” According to the book The History of the Snowman by Bob Eckstein, the snowman can be traced back to 7th century northern China. One of the more prominent and early traces of the snowman lies within a tiny illustration within an illuminated manuscript dating back to 1380 called Book of Hours.  


During the Middle Ages, snowmen were being made by children as well as adults, who were using the figure as a form of creative expression. Outdoor galleries would allow people to display their artistic takes on this figure, and others would walk around town discussing the merit of each of them on display.  

During the Civil War, soldiers took to a range of winter activities to pass the time, such as ice skating, sledding, and building “snow effigies.”   


Building snowmen has remained a common winter pastime today, but its rich and deep history has caused it to be affiliated with so much more.  

Other than serving as a pastime or means of creative expression, early snowmen were also used for political and social commentary. An example of this is called the Miracle of 1511, when the city of Brussels hosted a snowman festival in the hopes of appeasing its hungry and poor citizens. Instead, the citizens created snowy scenes that were politically charged to voice their opinions on matters pertaining to the church and government.  

The snowman made its way to North America through the Schenectady Massacre of 1690, when two guards who oversaw guarding the north gate of the Schenectady settlement in New York built two snowmen to act as guards while they went to the pub instead.  

Snowmen became more commercially popular upon the release of the movie “Frosty the Snowman” in 1950, which is also where the popular song originated from. 


The UIUC campus’s quad is a popular place for students to build snowmen outdoors, when there is actually snowfall. In the past, the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign held The Tallest Snowman Challenge, which was a partnership between the Children’s Hands on Museum (CHOM) of Northwest Illinois and The University of Illinois-Extension & 4-H. This activity involved building snowmen indoors with special craft items. Since there is currently no snow on the ground, building a snowman indoors with craft items could be a fun activity to do at home.  


Sources for this article from: the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign website, DoverCrimson.com, Battlefields.org, Wikipedia 

Image credit:  Unsplash