The first day of spring means the end of winter, no matter what Mother Nature says, thanks symbolically to Lake Superior State University’s annual Snowman Burning.
Mounds of cold, wet flakes still blanket the Eastern Upper Peninsula of Michigan. The stubbornly low thermostat proves all the more reason for LSSU to continue its 52-year tradition of setting fire to an enormous skeleton of wood covered in straw, wire, paint, and, on the outermost layer, artful white paper to usher in—or wish for—warmer weather. The rite of passage ends with students from Lake State’s fire science program, one of the signature academic offerings at the institution, dousing the flames but not the spirits.
The family-friendly event takes place on Monday, March 20 at 5:30 PM on the LSSU campus on the north side of the Cisler Center and is free and open to the public. Festivities begin with poetry readings that address this year’s theme of stress release. The giant frosty figure gets torched around 6 PM. Live music from Nelly’s Echo, billed as folk with soul, follows.
“We don’t freeze anyone out when we go up in flames,” said LSSU President Dr. Rodney S. Hanley. “Every year we encourage Laker students, faculty, staff, and alumni, as well as our community neighbors, to say goodbye to Old Man Winter by saying hello to our longstanding cool tradition. While we revel in the winter wonderland that overtakes the region for months, we also enjoy to the max shedding our layers of clothes and putting on shorts to play in the beautiful, lush seasons. Snowman Burning, pun intended, creates that spark.”
LSSU began the ritual of Snowman Burning in 1971 to celebrate the end of winter and mark the start of spring. Attendees quickly warmed to it, in part because early on in Snowman Burning, a whiteout snowstorm engulfed the E.U.P. and Northern Lower Peninsula but missed Sault Ste. Marie, Lake State’s home.
The fabricated snowman, a husky figure looming up to 12-feet tall, typically takes the guise of different characters and themes, embodying the times. In the 1970s, during the height of the women’s liberation movement, a “snow person” was burned instead of a snowman. Snow Ayatollah Khomeni in 1980 reflected the Iran hostage crisis. A snow “clone” in 1982 commented on that newsworthy scientific technique. A type of slush fund ignited imaginations in 2009 to critique corporate greed. One tack quickly extinguished: hypothetical players from rival hockey teams in the late 1980s and early 1990s were dropped as omens of bad luck for the five-time national champion Lakers.
LSSU’s Snowman Burning is inspired by the Rose Sunday Festival held in Weinheim-an-der-Bergstrasse, Germany. At that event, a parade finds its way to the center of town, and the mayor sets a snowman ablaze if the children agree to be good. After the youngsters yell their promise and consent to do their homework and obey their parents, the snowman is lit, and spring should ensue.
Snowman Burning forms one of a trio of Lake State traditions that have thrived for decades and were conceived in the 1970s by the late W.T. (Bill) Rabe, LSSU’s director of public relations, with help from professors of English, among others. The Department of Natural Unicorns has been granting unicorn-hunting licenses since 1971 to anyone who wants one. And Lake State has compiled a world-famous, tongue-in-cheek annual Banished Words List for misuse, overuse, and uselessness of the English language since 1976. LSSU’s Unicorn Hunters under Rabe kicked off LSSU’s penchant for idiosyncratic, playfully serious offerings and went on to concoct Snowman Burning and Banished Words, plus many others.
A master of ceremonies oversees LSSU’s Snowman Burning by welcoming the crowd and providing historical information. Wordsmiths among the onlookers then read original poetry and published pieces related to the activities. Then the frozen flare-up commences. Lake State’s student government members serve free food and beverages to the throng. LSSU fire science students and professors keep a close watch on the conflagration.
“I’m proud to say that Snowman Burning melts my heart every year,” said LSSU Dean of Student Affairs Dr. Michael Beazley, who oversees the blast. “It’s both a privilege and a lot of fun to maintain our singular bonfire that blows out winter and heralds in spring.”