It’s the most wonderful time of the year—
—yeah, no. I don’t know about where you are, dear reader, but here in Chicago it’s starting to get cold. And there are plenty of things that are wonderful about this time of year, but weather is not one of them. I would even go so far as to say that the temperature here is getting downright abominable.
Just like one of the season’s favorite monsters.
The abominable snowman is an interesting creation. It’s not exactly the same as a yeti, at least not always, though its roots trace back to the Himalayan cryptid. It’s not part of Christmas folklore like Santa and Mrs. Claus, Saint Nick, the reindeer, the elven toymakers, or even Krampus — but I don’t think I’m alone in saying that the first abominable snowman my mind jumps to is the one from Rankin/Bass’s claymation Christmas special, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.
So what’s the story, here?
Well, let’s start with the yeti.
The yeti is a longstanding legend in Nepalese folklore. Like so many other cultures around the world, the Nepalese told stories of a large ape-like creature living in the nearby wilderness — the Himalayas, in this case. It was said to walk like a human but stand taller than one. People who claimed to have seen one said that they were very hairy and often referred to one as a “wild man.”
You know, like a hipster.
Ahaha, nah, I’m just kidding. There are no real hipsters anymore. The last authentic specimens died out when the hallmarks of their subculture went mainstream, buried beneath layer upon layer of plaid and poseurs, like an ouroboros of ironic affectation.
I, uh, may have digressed a little bit there.
Though maybe not as much as you would think — like any cultural artifact “discovered” and reinterpreted by a different group, the legend of the yeti warped in transit to western culture.
Though the first reports of yeti traveled west as early as the nineteenth century, the first notable case came in 1921. During a British expedition to explore Mt. Everest, Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Howard-Bury — presumably so named for his dark past as a serial killer whose targets were all named Howard, what, no, of course I am making that up — ah, anyway, he relayed a story about some footprints his team saw in the snow.
Howard-Bury suggested they might have been made by a running wolf. The sherpas guiding his team told them about the legend of the yeti.
They called it metoh-kangmi, which translates to English as man-bear and snowman, respectively. In an impressive feat of mistranslation that would go down in history, an English-speaking journalist thought that metoh meant “filthy,” decided that “abominable” sounded cooler, and gave birth to a legend.
In name and in spirit, the abominable snowman would never be quite the same again.
But it wouldn’t take the world by storm for another three decades.
The abominable snowman became more popular in the United States in the 1950s — way more popular. In a move that both foreshadowed and laid the foundation for the Bigfootmania of the following decades, the abominable snowman hit the big time once visual “evidence” arrived on the scene.
What can I say? We’re a simple folk. We like pretty pictures.
Climber Eric Shipton took the iconic photographs of strange footprints on his way up Mt. Everest in 1951. Whether you believe the snowy tracks belong to a yeti or not, there’s no denying the effect the photos had on pop culture. The yeti, or abominable snowman, may not exist in the flesh, but it left a very real mark on our cultural imagination.
Britain’s Daily Mail even funded a 1954 expedition to look for the yeti. Granted, it’s the Daily Mail, but hey, it still says something that the story was popular enough to be worth funding an expedition to the Himalayas.
In fact, that capitalistic attitude pervades the search for the abominable snowman. Even the Nepalese government seized the opportunity to make a buck off of their nation’s most popular cryptid: the government began issuing Yeti-hunting licenses in 1957 as part of a series of regulations that the American Embassy in Kathmandu echoed as soon as it opened in 1959.
In the pop cultural world, 1957 also saw a horror film called The Abominable Snowman come out of Britain. Across the pond, an American oil tycoon named Tom Slick launched a series of expeditions to hunt for the yeti. An avid cryptid seeker, Slick was to be portrayed by Nicolas Cage in a movie that never made it to the big screen, which probably tells you everything you need to know about him.
And those echoes of abominable snow monsters continue up to the present day — not just in Rudolph. In 1967 the second Doctor faced off against yeti-inspired creatures in a Doctor Who story called “The Abominable Snowmen.” A decade later, a suspiciously abominable wampa threatened Luke Skywalker on Hoth. A much friendlier iteration appeared in Pixar’s classic Monsters, Inc., and nearly every fantasy-based roleplaying game or video game with a winter setting also features an homage to our snowy friend.
So what are we to make of the yeti’s journey to abominable snowman and its enduring popularity?
Well — winter itself is a monster, isn’t it?
Hey, now, don’t get me wrong, I love a good flurry and a few Festive Sugary Coffee Beverages™ just as much as the next person.
And without a doubt, some of the story of the yeti comes from the same instincts that I talked about in my post on Bigfoot — the impulse to find ourselves in nature, to negotiate the line between human and animal, to define what civilization means and how it changes us. These questions seem all the more urgent any time we undergo significant social change, which was definitely going on in the 1950s, or any time humanity comes into conflict with nature — and isn’t that part of the motive for climbing The World’s Tallest Mountain, to overcome nature’s challenges?
But, at least in the western mind, the key factor that separates the abominable snowman from Bigfoot is the snow.
Winter is mysterious – sheets of snow and fog limit visibility. That can be pretty eerie, especially in unfamiliar territory. The aesthetics are different, but it’s just as easy to be caught off-guard in a thick blizzard as it is in a creepy dark forest.
Or maybe the greater fear is that there is no horrifying predator lurking out of sight… because there’s nothing there at all. You’re looking at death from exposure instead of claustrophobic paranoia, but the wind and the cold are just as lethal. And if even monsters can’t survive this frigid wasteland, why should you think that you can?
Could our fixation on the abominable snowman come from loneliness? It’s often said that attraction and revulsion are linked — in this case, could the fear come from the same place as a desire to implant some other living creature in the barren landscape?
At least then you won’t die alone.
Aw, heck, it’s hard to get too doomsday about all this when I know I’m going to be watching a fuzzy clay doll bumble around without his teeth while Rudolph saves the day. But, you know, that’s kind of the point, isn’t it — the abominable snowman can be scary and lovable.
Just like people.
All monsters come from people, of course. It’s just easier to see how human they are when they’re primates who stand on two legs like us.
So I hope that you humans, like our abominable friend, stay warm this winter! Bundle up… and keep an eye out.