The History and Dark Side of Frosty the Snowman

Portrait by Artur Lopes

We all know that it was Frosty's hat that magically brought him to life, but I suspect that his pipe was his prime motivation. After all, any snowman can stand silently with a hat, eyes of coal, and a scarf, but a pipe requires ambulation. Try smoking a pipe without moving: you'll be disappointed.

No snowman is truly complete without a pipe, but even when I was a boy, finding a pipe was a difficult proposition. My friends and I used gravel for eyes, mouth, and coat buttons, a carrot for the nose, and scarves were easy to supply and troublesome for us to wear anyway. None of us had a silk top hat, but baseball caps were plentiful, as were brooms until they were missed at home, and in the woods, there were loads of dead branches for arms — some of them, if we looked carefully enough, providing amusing and obscene finger gestures earning the approbation of our friends. Pipes, however, were a different matter.

My dad was the only one among our families who smoked pipes, so I was expected to provide one, but I knew that was trouble. What pipe smoker would surrender one of our beloved pipes to the care of a bunch of nine-year-olds in the winter landscape, or approvingly see one protruding from a ball of snow decorated with gravel? My dad loved his small collection, so I had to be stealthy. Should I be caught disturbing his pipes, retribution would descend like the icy sledgehammer of the winter gods.

But peer pressure is a powerful force. "C'mon, ya peesickle, grow a spine," said my friend Roadkill McClosky, who had earned his enviable nickname with a decomposing possum deposited in the mailbox of our arch-nemesis, Old Man Dankworth. (A peesickle, for those who did not grow up in northern farmlands, is created by peeing on a wire fence, preferably non-electrified, to form yellow icicles, and is an insult of the highest order.) "We gotta have a pipe or this snowman is crap. Where's your gonads, man." I didn't know what a gonad was, but I would not be accused of such a deficit. I was confident that I had gonads aplenty and certainly a dozen more than Roadkill, but I had been issued a bitter challenge and the boy code required an immediate refutation.

My dad's sacred pipe cabinet contained his most precious possessions, pipes that were of more value to him than the life of any pilferer, and it adorned the wall of his study whose threshold no child dared cross under threat of uncompromising obliteration. I knew that choosing the correct pipe was paramount. He had no corn cobs, unfortunately. There were a couple of intricate white pipes carved like dragons that were totally badass, but they wouldn't provide the necessary color contrast against the snow, so I opted for a large straight briar that was suitably dark. I didn't know what kind of pipe it was but thought it among his least valuable because it had a white spot on the stem that wouldn't wipe off, so I slipped it into the pocket of my winter coat, intending to return it before dinnertime. My plan was to take it early each morning for the snowman so my friends wouldn't know it had spent the night indoors and then return it each night so my dad wouldn't know it had been gone.

It was the final component to complete our snowman and we all agreed that this was the best that had ever been constructed by anyone in history. The pipe conferred a regal and sophisticated air to its personality. We had thought ahead and built it on the side of our country road for optimal admiration of passing motorists, but as we all stood back and bathed in the appreciation of the cars going by, the flaw in our strategy became tragically clear.

The pipe conferred a regal and sophisticated air to its personality

A snowplow abruptly roared over the hill. We dove for the woods to avoid the churning, flying snow, but our snowman was not so athletically inclined. The wall of snow engulfed him like a tsunami. His buttons imploded into his torso while his arms snapped and spun into the stratosphere. When the snowplow had rumbled past, all that remained was the carrot, a wordless epitaph propped up in the piles of snow like some mockery of a tombstone. He was utterly destroyed, churned like butter into the titanic mounds of snow left behind by the plow. There was something especially morbid about seeing him destroyed by the very substance of his being. It wasn't exactly cannibalism, but the macabre irony was conspicuous.

My dad's pipe was surely destroyed, I thought, and knew that my doom was nigh. I began mentally composing my will. My snakeskin collection would go to Bandaid Agnello, my Hotwheels to Mothman Brubaker, and my marbles to Jawbone Hanlon. I would leave nothing for Roadkill; he could suck eggs. We all dug through the snow looking for the remnants of the broom, hat, pipe, and other snowman accouterments. It was Ironbutt Fontana who found the pipe, holding it triumphantly aloft, and miraculously, it was unbroken. That moment was like being reborn. I would live to build another snowman.

I rushed the pipe home and carefully wiped away the melting snow, polishing it on my shirt so that no one would recognize that it had survived near annihilation. It was the pipe that my dad chose that night for his after-dinner smoke, and I was enormously relieved to have returned it intact, until a look of disgust shrouded his face as he suddenly emptied sopping wet tobacco from the bowl. "Why is this pipe full of water?" Though I had dried and polished the outside, I had neglected its interior!

Much joylessness ensued.

I've never built another snowman, the process being a moderate phobia for me now, yet I admire them as much as I did in my youth and perhaps more so since I've smoked a pipe. Snowmen are the idyllic wintertime pipe smokers, and I envy their comfortability in sub-freezing temperatures; I'd trade my oldest tin of tobacco for their ability to so contentedly smoke outside in the freezing winter.

Back to Frosty

But this article is about Frosty the Snowman, not the misadventures of a youthful snowman-builder. My exploit predates the Frosty film, though, as do the millions of snowmen built over at least the past 800 years. Snowmen have a very long history.

Unfortunately, snowmen are not artifacts that remain intact through time, because, of course, snowmen possess the unhappy characteristic of liquifying. The fossil records are singularly devoid of snowmen, and aside from that lack of archeological evidence, few artworks depicting snowmen exist. Snowmen would never have made good models for artists, their proportions and general appearance being dependent on prevailing weather. That's why fruit bowls and landscapes are more popular art subjects: they don't dissolve before you can even get your colors mixed.

In The History of the Snowman (2007), Bob Eckstein writes that the first documentation of snowmen that he could uncover was in a manuscript from 1380 and that snowman-building was a prominent form of entertainment during the Middle Ages:

Not only did the snowman exist in the Middle Ages, he flourished. At a time when stilts and puppet shows passed for entertainment, the public was starved for the next "big thing." With plenty of famine, plague, and sickness abounding, winter festivals and other government-endorsed morale boosters provided relief to the starving masses who were either feeding on grass or dropping dead. (147)

... snowman-building was a prominent form of entertainment during the Middle Ages

Eckstein further reports that during one very harsh winter, the inhabitants of Brussels virtually covered the town in snowmen, an event later called the Miracle of 1511.

For six straight weeks, beginning January 1, the temperatures stayed below freezing and these snow sculptures represented the public's fears and frustrations during what was called "the Winter of Death." It was a much-needed distraction from the problems of class strife, low self-esteem, and, of course, the Guelders. (The Guelders were from Gelderland, once a part of the Low Countries in the Netherlands, and a group that enjoyed attacking Brussels.) (121)

Early snowmen were typically much more detailed than today's generic examples and more like the complex ice sculptures that some artists now craft (usually with chainsaws). That frigid span from January to mid- February in Brussels serves as an example:

Every corner of Brussels was occupied with snowmen and snow women pantomiming the local news or classical folklore: snow biblical figures, snow sea knights, snow unicorns, snow wildmen, snow mermaids, and snow village idiots. Snowmen were juxtaposed with neighboring snowmen to create clever interplay and contrast. Many snowmen were based on the icons of the calendar, like Janus (January) and Pluto (February) or the signs of the Zodiac. There was a snow scene of Christ with the Woman of Samaria. A preaching friar with a dripping nose. A tooth puller. The "Man in the Moon." Roland blowing his horn. Cupid with a drawn bow atop a pillar. Saint George rescuing the princess from a dragon. (121)

It was an unusual weather pattern and snowmen since then have mostly been snowmen, as opposed to animals and mythical beings, though they tended to be more lifelike than today and often satirized public figures.

Snowmen and Pipes

The first snowman to include a pipe is unknown, but the first recorded example is found in the History of British Birds (1797), from a woodcut made by Thomas Berwick in the late 1780s. Eckstein provides an image of that woodcut on page 69 of his book, depicting five boys building a snowman of about eight or nine feet tall, with legs, a prominent snow nose (carrots may have been too valuable back then), and other facial features, and carrying what appears to be a fishing pole. In the figure's mouth is a long straight Dublin/Pickaxe-type pipe.

For a while, snowmen even seemed to enjoy hard liquor:

So what precipitated that first drink? By 1908 there is already clear evidence of a problem. In Wallace McCutcheon's silent movie The Snowman, the chain-smoking snowman recklessly swigs whiskey until he is sloshed (and promptly flogged by the townspeople). Was this in the script? No one knows for sure exactly when the snowman began smoking a pipe and drinking hard liquor, but the two earliest public displays of this behavior on record are an 1898 illustration where he is toting two bottles of champagne in his arms, obviously on his way to some office party, and an 1890 label from a bottle of whiskey. (Eckstein, 64)

"No one knows for sure exactly when the snowman began smoking a pipe"

In the reproduction of that whiskey bottle provided in Eckstein's book, it is impossible to determine the type of pipe being smoked. Under magnification, and if I squint and click my heels together three times, I think I can see the bowl of an Apple shape, but it could be anything. That snowman is trudging through the snowy woods, followed by an elf, and wearing a top hat. He is definitely smoking, though he doesn't look as happy as one would expect on a whiskey bottle.

For Real This Time — Back to Frosty

The snowmen that we're familiar with today are more proper, thanks in large part to the image projected by Frosty the Snowman. They are not articulated with physiological realism, but instead are impressionistic sculptures composed generally of three spheres of snow. They are friendly in appearance and usually smiling, unlike that other snowman that dwells in our nightmares: the Yeti, also known as the Abominable Snowman.

The Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas does not smoke a pipe, which is perhaps why he is so abominable. I'm sure we could all enjoy a conversation with him around a campfire if he'd settle down with a nice bowl of Wintertime Reserve.

However, he does not smoke and hence is a scourge to travelers throughout the mountains of Tibet and Nepal. The locals call him the Metoh-Kangmi ("snow bear snowman"), and our appellation of "abominable" is from a mistranslation. Charles Howard-Bury led the first reconnaissance of Mount Everest in 1921 and documented numerous large footprints, which he thought were large wolf prints but that his sherpas attributed to the "wild man of the snow." Later, a reporter with The Statesman in Calcutta interviewed the sherpas and mistranslated metoh as "filthy," and then changed it to "abominable" for his article. That may have been to dramatize the story. It sounds like an early example of clickbait.

The word "Yeti" is derived from the Tibetan word, གཡའ་དྲེད་, which is pronounced sort of like "wylie." It's a little more complicated but I'm already drifting away from Frosty again, so let's transition back to him; you've waited long enough.

Interestingly, Rankin/Bass International Entertainment, the company that produced Frosty the Snowman in 1969, also produced Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, in which the Abominable was featured, though in a kid-friendly way. Sure, he starts out a little scary, but after his teeth are pulled he's an adorable "Bumble," and as we all know thanks to Yukon Cornelius: Bumble's bounce.

There's nothing adorable about the Yeti of legend, however. Among the earliest sightings of the creature, as chronicled on monstrumathenaeum.org, is the account of B.H. Hodgson in 1832. He reported a large two-legged creature in Nepal. It ran away from him and his guides and had long, dark hair, like an ape. Hodgson thought it was an orangutan, which we now know is impossible, but the orangutan's essential rainforest environment was not yet known in 1832.

There's nothing adorable about the Yeti of legend

Sightings increased and reached a peak in the 1940s and '50s, coinciding with efforts to scale Mount Everest, and have continued, with some speculating that there's a relationship between the Yeti and Bigfoot. Photos and casts of large footprints and even the discovery of feces with an unidentified parasite have fueled the legend of a vicious biped roaming the mountains, killing wildlife and unsuspecting climbers.

Whatever this abominable creature may be, it is not a snowman to be confused with Frosty the Snowman, in case you were concerned. At most, they are cousins on entirely different branches of the snowman's evolutionary tree.

No, Honest: This Section Really is About Frosty

Frosty was not the first snowman, though he was the first to star in an animated film. He was introduced in a song written by Steve Nelson and Walter "Jack" Rollins in 1949. They had observed the success of Gene Autry's song, "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," which sold two million copies the previous year. They developed the song and pitched it to Autry, who recorded it in 1950, and it too became a great success, rising to number five on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.

Many others have recorded "Frosty the Snowman," including Ella Fitzgerald, The Beach Boys, Michael Jackson, Bing Crosby, Willie Nelson, Billy Idol, Glen Campbell, and Michael Bublé. Jimmy Durante, however, who narrated the film that we're most familiar with, was the first to record the song after Autry. Arthur Rankin, Jr., of Rankin/Bass, was especially interested in Durante's participation in the film, thinking that his gravelly voice and delivery were perfect. It was arguably an excellent decision. Durante had started in vaudeville and acted in a number of films, and by 1950 he was among the most popular entertainers in the U.S. and was still so in 1969 when the animated version was made.

Rankin/Bass was looking for the feel of a Christmas card for the animation and enlisted Paul Coker, Jr., who had experience as an artist for greeting cards as well as for Mad magazine. The animation itself was farmed out to various companies, mainly Mushi Productions in Japan, and its style was called by Rankin/Bass, "Animagic," a process using stop-motion animation with projections overlaid.

The screenplay for Frosty was adapted from the original song by the screenwriter and actor, Romeo Muller. Muller also wrote the scripts for the Rankin/Bass productions, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, The Little Drummer Boy, and Santa Claus is Coming to Town.

Frosty has been a part of the Christmas season's television broadcasts ever since, rebroadcast by CBS every year since its debut, though no mention of Christmas is made in the song. The song is, however, quite specific about some of Frosty's characteristics and accessories. He has a button nose, eyes of coal, a silk hat, and corncob pipe. Those items carried forward to the film.

... no mention of Christmas is made in the song

That film was preceded by a three-minute animation in 1950, but the shorter film follows only the lyrics of the song, while the 1969 version that we're all familiar with extended the plot with modifications of its own. It takes place on Christmas Eve, for example, despite showing the children in school that day. The '60s were evidently a tough decade to be in school: no day off on Christmas Eve and uphill both ways. The movie adds an incompetent magician and introduces the girl Karen, who takes Frosty's problem with the hot weather so seriously. Also added is Santa Claus, who is pivotal in saving Frosty by taking him to the North Pole.

It's certainly a feel-good holiday feature that most of us grew up with. However, there have been some amusing rumblings online about the idea that Frosty might not be what he appears. He may be evil.

Frosty the Evil, Abominable Snowman?

There are a couple of videos on Youtube proposing that Frosty is evil and examining the text of the song for diabolical interpretations, and retired Professor Horace Jeffery Hodges of Ewha Womans University in South Korea has a blog post that looks at these lines from the song:

Frosty the snowman
Was alive as he could be
And the children say he could laugh and play
just the same as you and me

"See how this insidious song brings 'you and me' into its spellbinding realm?" writes Hodges. "Does it not imply this 'snowman' is not entirely alive? That it might need to feed on the life of others?"

It seems like a stretch, but if we examine the song and film closely, Hodges may be onto something.

Firstly, it's suspicious that the children in the film version are attending school on Christmas Eve, which might be construed as disrespecting the holy day of Christmas. The film provides a closeup of the clock when the children are released from school: exactly 3:00, which is perhaps common for school, but as any watcher of supernatural horror films will know, 3:00 is the devil's hour. Theoretically, 3:00 is when demons and devils are at their strongest, and though that's a.m., not p.m., it's still creepy. It's also believed that the number three is used by diabolical forces to mock the holy trinity.

it's suspicious that the children in the film version are attending school on Christmas Eve

Professor Hinkle, the magician who owns the magic hat that brings Frosty to life, does not lose his hat; it's taken by his rabbit, who brings it to the children. Those children now insist that it's theirs, in effect stealing it, and theft is a strong symbol of evil, as, perhaps, are rabbits. On the website, "What is my Spirit Animal?" the symbolism of rabbits is examined, in one section stating that the rabbit is "associated with trickery and being unclean or not to be trusted." Rabbits as spirit animals foretell danger and the admonition to "look before you leap," a warning that the children ignore as they eagerly follow Frosty and dance around him like a coven of worshipping witches.

Furthermore, Frosty is especially attracted to the cold, a term that, as a descriptor of people, means heartless, deliberately mean, and lacking compassion. Frosty also carries a broom, which is favored by witches as their most powerful instrument of dark magic.

Frosty's eyes are made of coal. Do you know who has coal? Children who are so bad that they get it for Christmas, that's who has coal. It isn't common. I never had coal; the farmhouse I grew up in had a coal chute, but certainly no coal. Despite the film claiming to take place on Christmas Eve, the song does not mention the holiday, and the weather is warm, perhaps indicating that the time frame is indeed past Christmas and closer to Spring, after Santa has delivered coal to these evil children and they're now utilizing it. Coal has an additional meaning: On a blog post by Julie Rose, coal is "A symbol of hidden, occult power or strength; the cold, black coal needs the igniting spark to unleash its dormant energies. Burning coal symbolizes the alchemical transformation of black into red." Coal is bad magic, and Frosty is imbued with its power.

This diabolical snowman also ignores the authority of law: As he arrives at an intersection, a traffic officer tries to halt him, but Frosty "only paused a moment when he heard him holler 'Stop!'" Such flagrant disregard for public safety, and in the presence of children, is surely evil. Furthermore, in the film that officer is stricken by the sight of Frosty and swallows his whistle. The whistle, a symbol of warning, is in effect silenced by Frosty.

Trying to get Frosty to the North Pole, the children find a refrigerated boxcar on a train heading north. North is a place of cold and dark, and has been viewed with suspicion by civilization until only recently. According to the website, aleteia.org:

North is a place of cold and dark

[In the] first few centuries of the Church, the barbarian armies lived to the north of Christian cities and were viewed as hostile people. The prophet Jeremiah even mentions how, "Out of the north evil shall break forth upon all the inhabitants of the land" (Jeremiah 1:14). (Philip Kosloski, 08/04/17, "The Ancient Symbolism of North, South, East and West.")

In 1976, Frosty returned to TV in Frosty's Winter Wonderland. In that special, the lonely snowman's friends, who are children, make him a wife named Crystal. That's eerily similar to the monster's ambition in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Frosty is clearly a monster.

At the end of both the song and the film, Frosty promises that he'll "be back one day." It's easy to hear that as a dark warning and a projected omen of doom, given the diabolical nature that Frosty has so clearly revealed.

That's quite a bit of evidence against Frosty, certainly enough to persuade anyone. Are you convinced? Yeah, me neither. It's a bunch of silliness and merely a fun exercise in how nearly anything can be interpreted to extremes. Frosty is not evil. He brings happiness and magic to the Christmas season and his inherent goodness is confirmed by his pipe smoking.

The fact remains that Frosty the Snowman is a wonderful holiday special that has brought joy to generations, and will undoubtedly continue doing so for generations more. And it's especially nice that Frosty's pipe is so firmly part of the snowman's character. Although his pipe is always empty of tobacco, he's still a pipe smoker, and the fact that he's part of the Christmas season, along with his pipe-smoking friend Santa, makes the season particularly pleasant for those of us who enjoy pipes throughout the year.

References:

  • The History of the Snowman, (2007), by Bob Eckstein
  • 2Paragraphs.com
  • UDiscoverMusic.com
  • Monstrumathenaeum.org
  • MentalFloss.com
  • Blogspot: Gypsy Scholar
  • What is my Spirit Animal.com
  • Blogspot: Julie K. Rose
  • Aletia.org
  • Category:   Pipe Line
    Tagged in:   Christmas Famous Pipe Smokers

    Comments

      • Dan on December 18, 2021
      • I almost laughed this off as a fun exercise of taking Frosty to the extremes, and then on second thought I realized that some real research went into this; real facts were presented. I can't unsee it now, Frosty The Snowman is an incarnation of evil and he smokes a pipe...I feel it in my bones. The Professor (aka "The Napoleon Of Crime") smoked a pipe, it's not far fetched that this icey epitome of evil could sport a pipe as well. Even while watching the video of them circling Frosty, I couldn't help but feel those evil witchy undertones. My whole world has been flipped upside down! 🤣😂Loved it! https://calvinandhobbes.fandom.com/wiki/Calvin%27s_snowmen

      • D. on December 18, 2021
      • Oh my God, hilarious. 'I didn't know what kind of pipe it was but thought it among his least valuable because it had a white spot on the stem that wouldn't wipe off' and 'Under magnification, and if I squint and click my heels together three times, I think I can see the bowl of an Apple shape, but it could be anything.' had me laughing out loud... seriously, I think I cracked a rib. Just when I thought Chuck might be on vacation for the holidays, he delivers this holiday gem. The Artur Lopes Snowman portrait makes a great mobile wallpaper. Thanks for the seasonal laughs, Chuck. https://youtu.be/TYtIuABG9C8

      • MichaelM on December 19, 2021
      • I thoroughly enjoyed reading this.The nicknames in the beginning had me smiling. A wonderful and certainly thought provoking post. Merry Christmas and thanks for sharing!M

      • MichaelM on December 19, 2021
      • Forgot to mention the ‘white dot’ reference. Couldn’t rub it off the Dunhill. 🤣Hysterical.M

      • Jack+ on December 19, 2021
      • Hilarious!!! Such a fun read (as always). I remember a long time ago when a friend of ours came over to the house with her wee daughter (early grade school age). When the daughter saw my pipe, she just stared. Her mother didn't even miss a beat, "Do you know who else smokes a pipe? Santa Claus." It was a great, teachable moment. I thought about Calvin and Hobbes and I appreciate Dan's link! Happy Holidays, everyone.

      • Don W on December 19, 2021
      • Best of the season 😂I’m a bit overwhelmed after considering all the research 🧐 that went into this! Well done and kudos to Chuck. Being an old expulsion of odious gas, I went to school in the 50/60s Being a country kid, we walked 5 miles barefoot in the snow ⛄️ to get there. Anyway… We also made our own corncob pipes to smoke “rabbit tobacco” and adorn snowmen!

      • SO on December 19, 2021
      • Thank you for another interesting and funny article. I really had a laugh with your childhood snowman story.

      • Matt on December 19, 2021
      • Thanks for the laughs, Chuck, always a pleasure reading your work. My two favorite lines:"Much joylessness ensued.""At the end of both the song and the film, Frosty promises that he'll 'be back one day.'"

      • Cob Deprived on December 19, 2021
      • Delightful! Although I now understand why growing up in a nonsmoking home with no pipes to use, a gas furnace (no coal), no top hats, but plenty of carrots and sticks caused me to create oddly deficient snowpersons.

      • Barry on December 19, 2021
      • It's the Freemasons. It's always the Freemasons. Frosty wears a top hat? Know who else wears a top hat? Lodge masters. Coincidence? NOT BLOODY LIKELY.....and "Santa"? C'mon man.......S-A-N-T-A = S-A-T-A-NJust sayin'Great writing. I can sympathize with the wrath of Dad. I many instances myself I could recount

      • Joseph Kirkland on December 20, 2021
      • Chuck, a masterful story!The first part certainly resonates. I bet all of us who were boys once upon time have stories, maybe not about a white dot pipe, but . . . It could be the favorite hammer whose handle we mysteriously broke or the .22 whose peep sight we knocked off zero while hunting rabbits in the snow or worse stories. Father being overly quiet and not yelling was worse than yelling and a whipping.Ah, those were the days, my friend.Thank you. And Merry Christmas to all and have a great pipe to celebrate.

    Join the conversation:


    This will not be shared with anyone

    challenge image
    Enter the circled word below: