−−− BY LINZI DAVIES −−−

2018 is officially underway. We have celebrated Christmas with the family, eating, drinking and being merry. We saw the New Year in with parties and fireworks. After several weeks of fun and celebrations, it is no wonder that the ‘January blues’ can become an issue. People return to work, school and the mundane daily life. The days are short and dark. January is also officially the coldest month of the year in the UK, and along with February, is the most likely month to see snow. Of course, in early and late December it fell by the bucket load in large parts of the country bringing traffic to a standstill as roads were closed and flights were grounded. Here in Yorkshire we escaped largely unscathed. People either love or hate snow. If you have somewhere to be, it can be a major inconvenience, whilst others enjoy the beauty it brings, and children rush out in their droves to have fun. This month, we celebrate all that is good about snow and look at where all the traditions came from.

Snowmen

Probably the first thing that pops into your head when you think of the words ‘snow’ and ‘fun’ is the good old snowman! As soon as the flakes begin to fall, children press their noses against the glass waiting until there is enough of the stuff to get out there and create their very own friend in the garden, complete with a carrot nose and scarf. They come in all different shapes and sizes, only your imagination and the amount of snow limit the choices. I have so many happy childhood memories of my brother and I systematically rolling a ball of snow up and down our grandparent’s garden, gathering as much as we could to make a huge snowman. Grandad would be there to encourage and assist, lifting the heavy head onto the body for us, and providing a scarf and flat cap, coal for the eyes and mouth before finally stealing a carrot from Gran’s kitchen to finish off with a bright orange nose!

Despite today’s seeming addiction to gadgets and tech, building a snowman is still magical for kids, enough so to tear them away from the iPad for an hour or so of fun in the cold. But when and where did the first snowman appear? They surely can’t have been around forever, even though it is hard to imagine a time without them.

In fact, as evidence shows that humans have always made art with such things as prehistoric cave paintings, it makes you wonder if our Neanderthal ancestors even enjoyed making creative use of the snow! Of course, we have no way of knowing if this was the case, but we do know that the earliest depiction of a snowman was found in a 1380 illuminated manuscript of the Book of Hours in the Netherlands. Rather than being the jolly fellow that we are used to today, this illustration appears to be of anti-Semitic nature, as he sits with a charred backside next to a fire, whilst wearing a Jewish cap. The Jewish snowman was apparently the focus of blame and frustration during plague-ridden and difficult times.

In 1511, a public art installation known as the Miracle of 1511 saw the people of Brussels construct over 100 snowmen during six weeks of freezing weather to show their anger at the politicians who were not doing enough to overcome poverty and starvation. The snowmen included a defecating demon, a humiliated king, and sexually explicit caricatures. Also included were folklore figures such as mermaids and unicorns.

The far more innocent and happy snowmen that we appreciate now first became popular in the Victorian era when Prince Albert brought his penchant for seasonal German fun to England. In modern times, as well as childish fun, there are also snowman festivals held around the world. The Sapporo Snow Festival in Japan sees the creation of 12000 mini snowmen in a field wearing messages from their makers. In Bavaria is the Bischofsgrün festival which features ‘Jacob’ a giant snowman. The record for the world’s biggest personified snowman goes to ‘Olympia’, a 122ft tall snow lady created in 2008 in Maine, complete with snowflake jewels and six-foot long eyelashes!

Sledging

Another snowy activity enjoyed by all is a thrilling ride on a sledge down the nearest steep hill. Sledges come in all shapes and sizes, from the colourful plastic ones you buy in a shop to the heavy wooden ones made by grandpa or dad in the garden shed. Lack of a sledge has never deterred anyone though with bin liners, baking trays and sheets of cardboard even being commandeered in the name of fun!

Sledging or tobogganing has been a traditional mode of transport for thousands of years in countries where snow is prevalent, as the people discovered that they were easier to move along snow or long grass where wheels would become bogged down and stuck. Early examples were found in the Oseberg Viking ship excavation, and have also been much used in northern Canada. As well as hand pulled designs, there have been larger dog, horse or ox drawn vehicles too. The ancient Egyptians also used sledges to move heavy loads through the sand. As they have been used for so long simply just to get from A to B it is difficult to pinpoint when they became more of a recreational object. Of course, they are still used in a more practical way in many parts of the world.

There are many hills across Leeds that are perfect for sledging, including the famous hill 60 at Roundhay park – a bumpy and hair-raising ride for the most daring among us. My favourite childhood sledging haunt was the hill running down from the water tower behind the fire station at Garforth which is now a new housing estate.

The fun to be had on a sled is vast. Little ones enjoy being pulled along the street by a willing parent, whilst older children and adults will be thrilled by the buzz of flying at great speed down a hill. The first run is always the most important as this smoothes and compacts the snow for the rest. You can slide down seated, or even lying on your stomach. I remember one year accidentally using my younger brother as a ‘jump’. He set off before me on his sled, and I followed in mine accompanied by our little sister. Halfway down the hill he fell out and just laid there in the snow with me screaming at him to get out of the way. He wasn’t fast enough though and we flew over the top of him! He was unhurt, and we had a good laugh about it afterwards.

As well as being fun, sledging is great exercise. You must pull your sled back to the top again each time. There is also competitive sledding. Early kick sled races were recorded during the 15th century in Sweden and Norway, but the modern sports of Luge, Skeleton and Bobsledding were developed in Switzerland during the 19th century. In 1883 an Australian named George Robertson won the reputed first international sled race held in Davos, Switzerland. He beat competitors from Europe and the United States along a 4km stretch of road. Bobsleigh and skeleton were recognised as Olympic sports in 1926. They are exciting sports to watch, but I cannot help but think of the film ‘Cool Runnings’ when I think of the Bobsleigh!

Snowball Fights

It is highly tempting to throw a sneaky snowball at a friend when you are trudging through drifts of the white stuff, your toes numb inside your wellies. Snowball fights are another way to enjoy the weather and let off some steam whilst having fun. Very little is known about when snowball fights became a winter pastime, but there are depictions of the activity within Medieval illuminated manuscripts, hidden among the more familiar images of religious saints and demons that we associate with art from this time. There is also a rumour that Napoleon first demonstrated his strategic mind during childhood snowball fights in the 17th century.

Despite the fun nature of most snowball battles today, it has not always been so. In the mid-19th century there were newspaper reports of innocent passers by getting caught in the crossfire and injured. The New York Times reported in 1855 “An aged lady, named Mrs Wilkinson, was getting out of her sleigh at the corner of Prince Street and Broadway when some mischievous boy threw a snowball, which struck her directly in the face and cut her cheek badly. A man named Thomas, riding alone in his sleigh up Chatham street on Saturday morning, received a severe blow on the side of his head, which rendered him insensible for half an hour. He was removed to the drug store of Latting & Co., and with great difficulty was restored to consciousness.”

There were more serious reports than this – in 1863 it is said that the Confederate troops stationed in the Rappahannock Valley in Northern Virginia began exchanging friendly snowball fire which escalated to a 9000-strong brawl!

The world record for the largest snowball fight is currently held by the city of Saskatoon in Canada. 7681 participants enjoyed the game which was organised as a send off for Team Canada to the Showa Shinzan International Yukigassen World Championships – an annual professional snowball fighting competition!

The answer to a good snowball fight is to ensure that everyone involved in the game is willing, and that soft snow is used. Snow compacted into ice can cause far worse injury than was intended, and children mischievously throwing snowballs at cars need reminding that this could be incredibly dangerous for both themselves and drivers! These warnings aside though, a snow missile thrown light-heartedly at your friends and family can provide great entertainment – nature’s version of dodgeball!

Igloos and snow forts

If you have a big enough garden, and plenty of snow, it is far easier than you realise to make your very own igloo or fort. Children will love being able to climb into a den they have created from snow all by themselves! Using simple containers like a 2ltr ice-cream tub, you can mould your own snow bricks and let them air harden before using them to build with. Snow scooped in your hands makes the perfect mortar to stick them together and you can get creative with the shape and size of your new snow home.

Igloos have been made for hundreds of years by the Inuit people of Canada’s Central Arctic and Greenland’s Thule area. The traditional image we have of an igloo is a dome shaped shelter with a low, tunnel shaped entrance. These are very common, but the Inuit also used snow to insulate other houses constructed of whale bone and hides. Snow is an excellent insulator due to the air pockets trapped within it, and a well-constructed igloo can have an internal temperature range of -7 to 16°c when warmed by body heat alone, even though outside the building it may be as low as -45°c! The dome shape is formed by using a spiral method which causes the blocks to be self-supported. If built correctly, you could stand on the roof without damage or collapse.

The Inuit people use different igloos for different purposes. There are small temporary shelters used by hunters for one or two nights while out in search of food. There are also intermediate sized single room homes to house one or two families. These were generally clustered together to form an ‘Inuit Village.’ Larger igloos were constructed for special occasions, having up to five rooms to house up to 20 people. These were often created from several smaller igloos attached by tunnels with one common access to the outside, and were traditionally used to hold community feasts and traditional dances.

Though igloos are less frequently used by the Inuit now, due to climate change and less availability of the ‘right’ type of snow, they do still use them for hunting trips etc. They have become more popular with tourists though with winter survival experiences now available on the holiday market. There are also the stunningly beautiful ice hotels that now found in Scandinavia during the winter months where intrepid guests can stay before it all melts back into the rivers in the spring!

However you feel about snow, there is certainly plenty of fun to be had with it. Getting out into the fresh air can chase away those winter blues, and of course top up our vitamin D levels which are often so low during winter. Who knows what the next couple of months will bring, but if it is snow – ENJOY!

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