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With plenty of snow, this is the year of the winter carnival

If you're considering an escape to the hills, you could do far worse this year than elect the site of a real down-to-snow winter carnival.

If anything can kill a good winter carnival, it's a bad, slushy snow year. And that means for the past two or three seasons winter carnivals have generally had the allure of a rainy parade on the Fourth of July.

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But not this winter. This winter may be tough on heating bills, but it is wonderful for winter carnivals. There is nothing like snow piled high along village streets; twinkling lights on trees illuminating snow sculptures in front of lodges; fireworks; and, yes, parades -- the whole thing sprinkled with gently falling snow while everyone ''oohs'' and ''ahs'' and laughs a lot, if for no other reason than just to keep warm.

That was the way it was at the Stowe (Vt.) Winter Carnival this year, where an ice-bound Miss Piggy reclined, viewing all the hoopla with appropriate detachment. Smashing fireworks, dog-sled races (and just about every kind of race and competition somebody could come up with), puppeteers and puppets, people dressed in Star Wars costumes -- somehow it all seems to make more sense when the thermometer is stuck somewhere around zero (or below).

I note that Gunstock, N.H., this year even staged an ''Audubon Society Birdwatch'' and a ''Wrist Wrestling Championship.'' Whoever wrist wrestles or whatever bird shows up at these temperatures deserves at least a season ski pass.

Winter carnivals gained fame originally via Eastern colleges like Dartmouth, Middlebury, Williams, and St. Lawrence. Towns and ski resorts pushed their own variety. Now, they are big attractions at many Western resorts, while Quebec's Laurentians also have long boasted some of the most colorful. You don't have to ski to enjoy them. But the warmest clothes you can find are a must.

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