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Lake State signals spring with annual snowman burning

Event happens on March 18 at the Cisler Plaza
2019 LSSU snowman burning

With snowfall this year in the Eastern Upper Peninsula of Michigan dwarfing the annual average of 120 inches, Lake Superior State University continues its 51-year tradition of melting even the coldest of hearts by hosting a Snowman Burning to signal the spring season. The event, which serves as the centerpiece of a flurry of activities that comprises LSSU’s Springfest, is free and open to the public and takes place on Friday, March 18, 2022, at 6 p.m. in Cisler Plaza on the Lake State campus.

“This is no snow job,” said LSSU President Dr. Rodney S. Hanley. “Lake State gathers Laker students, faculty, staff, and alumni, along with community members, as the first day of spring approaches to burn a paper effigy of Old Man Winter as a giant snowman. Don’t get me wrong. We love the winter wonderland that the region becomes. But given the sheer volume of snow and ice that blankets the area for months on end, I am not shoveling it when I say that Lakers believe the rising smoke will ward off blizzard conditions and usher in moderate weather.”

LSSU began the rite of Snowman Burning in 1971 to celebrate the end of winter and mark the start of spring. The creature set aflame is fashioned out of a skeleton of wood and covered in paper that otherwise would be recycled. Additional materials include straw, wire, and paint. Attendees quickly warmed to the ritual, 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 went up in flames: 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, 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 tongue-in-cheek annual Banished Words List for misuse, overuse, and uselessness of the English language since 1976. The 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 festivities. Then the type of frozen blaze 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.  

"We are delighted to maintain the tradition of sending winter away while welcoming spring,” said LSSU Dean of Student Affairs Dr. Michael Beazley. “We have a lot of snow to melt this year, so let's hope the snowman does his job well.”