When you hear the name Jack Frost, you no doubt imagine a sparkling, no-good teenager or some kind of angry demigod with icicles on his chin. In either case, he represents winter’s desire to make every step of your day 8 percent more frustrating. Jack Frost isn’t a deadly highway pileup on black ice: He’s more the engine that won’t turn over; the icicle that drips down the back of your neck; the department store that plays “Simply Having a Wonderful Christmas Time” within range of human hearing.
In fairness, in addition to his less pleasant duties, young Master Frost also makes the world prettier by crystallizing the dew, doodling on the window and painting the foliage its autumnal hues.
Plainly, the man (ice creature?) contains multitudes.
But who the fuck is he?
Who is this audacious, frosty gentleman, nipping at my nose?
Personifications of winter exist in every culture, but as noted above, Jack has become the singularly softer face of its annoyances, rather than its frozen, deadly threats. That wasn’t always the case, though: In the February 1879 issue of the succinctly titled Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society and Monthly Record of Geography New Monthly Series, famous explorer Clements Markham refers to how “a giant used to lie there in wait to kill (kesh) all the Hindus who passed that way. This giant was probably the same whom we, in the Arctic Regions, used to call ‘Old Zero,’ better known in England as ‘Jack Frost.’”
Holy frosticles! “Old Zero” sounds like an antihero from the next Metal Gear installment!
Indeed. It’s likely the current name came about because, historically, the British used “Jack” as a catch-all familiar name for a general or unidentifiable person (e.g., Jack the Ripper and Spring-Heeled Jack).
Huh. Wait, tell me more about this ice giant thing. Is that where Jack Frost came from?
Well, some people think that there’s a link between the legends from snowy Scandinavia or continental Germanic tribes to the modern Jack Frost, drawing the homophonic connection to Norse Frost Giants named Jokul or Frosti, because come on, that’s got to be it, right?
Despite an entire family named “Frost,” “Snow” or “Icicle,” however, any resemblance beyond the name is probably a dead end, since there are no references to these giants having similar personalities and duties to Jack Frost. So any speculation there is pretty much just a bunch of hot, er, cold air.
Well, that was a disappointment.
But wait! Others speculate that Jack is a modern form of the Norse god Ullr, who was once extremely prevalent, but is now fairly obscure. He’s known primarily for archery, dueling, hunting and skiing (so he’s pretty fun to go on mancations with). He’s also a “cunning wizard,” which seems like the first thing you’d tell somebody about your new friend, no matter how good they were at archery.
Here’s where it gets interesting: Ullr, who once ruled Asgard for a decade in Odin’s name (literally — he changed his name to Odin!) is Sif’s son and Thor’s stepson. Who’s his real dad? Nobody knows, but there’s a suggestion in the narrative that Poppa might be either Loki or Hrungnir.
Still, Ullr seems less of a snow god and more of a ski god (picture him as the rich bully from an 1980s movie), and without a better sense of his personality, we can’t reliably make the connection.
Okay, so Jack isn’t from Scandinavia. Where else might he be from?
Let’s turn our gaze to Russia to meet Old Man Winter, aka Father Winter, Old Man Frost, Winter Wizard(!) and a dozen other names, of which the best one is easily, “Master of Cold.” Old Man Frost often gets translated into English as “Jack Frost,” but that’s bullshit — just look at him, he’s basically Blue Santa.
There was also only ever-nominal crossover between the Master of Winter and his spritely English counterpart: As early as 1734, Round About Our Coal-Fire, or Christmas Entertainments, was calling Jack out by name as a spritely twerp who “commonly takes us by the nose,” rather than raining down bitter Siberian death-winters.
So he’s not Russian either, then. Where else does he pop up?
Back in the U.S. in 1858, Jack paired off with Betty Snow. These two thrill-chill-killers actually murdered some folks before they split up, according to legend, but as of 1875, Canadian poet Charles Sangster’s “Little Jack Frost” describes him once again in his more childlike demeanor, making mischief and biting noses.
Around the same time comes American poet Hannah Flagg Gould’s “The Frost,” which doesn’t specifically use the name “Jack,” but does characterize the cold as a rakish imp prone to painting wonderful scenes on windows as well as fucking your shit up if you don’t leave a drink out for him (also, if you do).
How did he fuck shit up exactly?
Gould describes Jack musing to himself, “‘This costly pitcher I’ll burst in three,’” like a Real Housewife subjected to a mild criticism. The pitcher in question would be the jug of water kept outside to save the residents the hassle of trekking to the well first thing on a snowy morn.
Despite Jack’s tendency to act like a vandal, Gould contrasts his personality with the more violent, blustery elements of winter, so apparently Jack is still the friendliest member of this dangerous seasonal street crew. It’s this agreed-upon image of Jack that carried on into the modern era with L. Frank Baum’s The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus in 1902, and a titular cartoon by Ub Iwerks, creator of Mickey Mouse. This cheeky version can still be seen in modern cinema, such as Martin Short’s portrayal of the character in The Santa Clause 3: the Escape Clause.
Fun fact: Just about every movie featuring Jack is terrible, including films called Jack Frost that aren’t about this Jack Frost. Although if you want to see Shannon Elizabeth break into a stranger’s house to take a bath in the middle of a date a few hours after her kid brother was decapitated, you’re going to be very happy.
So maybe Jack is kind of like Old Man Winter in his youth — still jovially torturing animals before he blossoms into a full-fledged serial killer?
That’s one way of looking at it. It’s possible that in characterizing him as a familiar, everyman “Jack,” rather than some kind of powerful Winter Wizard, the British softened his persona. Or it could be that Britain’s temperate climate did the job — when winter’s more fun than deadly, you tend to view it as a merry prankster rather than a murderer.
All told, Jack remains fairly mysterious, but there’s one aspect of him we can be certain of: When he’s around, protect ya nose.