Snowmen are the sandcastles of winter

When my daughter was a little girl, she would occasionally ask me to build her a fairy house: A home for tiny, winged creatures – not cluster flies – constructed of moss, a couple of twigs, and architecturally precise, large-scale post-and-beam framing. This was always stressful for me as a dad, since I can barely follow the directions and fold together a cardboard file box. Give me a saw and a couple of two-by-fours, and I am likely to make nothing but sawdust.

The same was true when, this time of year, she would ask me to help her build a snowman. Sure, a snowman didn’t demand blueprints, but it was still a quasi-construction project. Worse, it was a quasi-construction and art project. The only thing I was worse at as a dad than building fairy houses was building anything with Play-Doh. One time, my daughter suggested we make a fairy house out of Play-Doh. The result was the World’s Ugliest Building – and a whole lot of dried-out Play-Doh with moss and twigs stuck to it. There was no way any self-respecting fairies were ever going to alight there, even if (like me) they really liked the smell of Play-Doh.

In any case, there was something I could do when it came to learning how to build a snowman. I could surf the web for tips. So, as a public service for moms and dads wherever there’s snow – which, given the speed with which our climate is changing, may soon mean northernmost Greenland – here is what I learned. Here, in short, is how to build a snowman.

First, make a snowball. Make a big snowball. Think grapefruit. Then kickball. Pack it as tight as you can, and if it doesn’t pack tight, then perhaps this isn’t the right sort of snow to make a snowman. But let’s hope it does pack tight, because the last thing you want to do is bundle your three-year-old into a hermetically sealed snowsuit and facemask suitable for a moonwalk, and then murmur, “Hmmmmm. I don’t think this is the right kind of snow to make a snowman.”

Roll your kickball-sized snowball along the ground so snow gathers around it, and it grows and grows into an appropriate sized base for your snowman. I usually imagined I was creating a Hippity-Hop, minus the handle.

Repeat this process twice more, first creating a snow torso and then a snow head. Pack a little snow where the snow globes meet.

Now, here’s the trick: Take a long metal rod or wooden dowel and spear the snowman from his head straight down through his feet. Once I used one of the detachable rods for my snow rake. Another time I used the handle to a push broom.

When you have completed the basics, you can decorate. And here we come to the fundamental sexism of the term “snowman.” It is equally as wonderful, of course, to make a “snowwoman.” But – and this is a seriously important “but” – don’t presume that anatomically accurate above-the-waist sculpting of your front yard snowperson is going to make you look like a snowbound Michelangelo. Do this, and you risk looking like a snowbound pervert. My advice? Use clothes and props to give your snowperson a snow gender. And, along those lines, stick to Norman Rockwell-esque cloths and props. Trust me, an apron on a snowperson works a whole lot better than your or your wife’s slutty French maid Halloween costume.

When you’re done, you can begin that age-old tradition of watching it melt. Snowmen are the sandcastles of winter. They will – even in Greenland – eventually go the way of the Wicked Witch of the West.

But that’s a part of their charm. Besides, it’s only January. Even this year there will be more snow and more chances to build that perfect snowman.

(The column appeared originally in the Burlington Free Press on January 20, 2013. Chris’s new novel, “The Light in the Ruins,” arrives on July 16.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.