In our modern day culture, we enjoy the concept of snow and Christmas as a religious holiday as being inextricably linked. However, this has not always been the case. In respect of the Bible, we learned that Jesus Christ was born on the day now referred to as Christmas Day, yet there seems to be no mention of snow, even though snow has been evident in Israel, including Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Perhaps this is just an ideal – to blend grand narrative and scientific climate reality. So where does a White Christmas come from?
The romantic and sentimental concept of snow falling at Christmas is rooted within British culture, ostensibly as depicted from scenes that began in the Victorian era. It was Queen Victoria's German husband, Prince Albert, who advocated and encouraged having Christmas Trees, and also sending Christmas Cards that invariably portrayed snowy scenes.
Snow falling at Christmas was also noted in some of the literary works of Charles Dickens; the novels, 'A Christmas Carol', and 'The Pickwick Papers', are two such examples. During the Victorian era when Dickens was young, the United Kingdom experienced plenty of snowfalls. So, with a royal endorsement, reinforced by such a literary scholar the image of snow and Christmas were securely cemented within our cultural history and mindset.
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The origins of a snowy Christmas may have also come from the 'Little Ice Age' that occurred across the United Kingdom within the period 1550-1850. Winters were particularly persistent and severe within this period, with frequent 'frost fairs' being held on the River Thames in London (the last one occurred in the winter 1813-1814).
The calendar change in 1752 from the Julian to Gregorian style meant that Christmas Day, January 6th now fell 12 days earlier on December 25th. However, in many eastern areas of Europe, adopting the Orthodox branch of the Roman religion, January 6th remains as Christmas Day. From a climatological perspective this change of date is important; records show that generally snowy weather is more likely to occur in the first week of January then the last week of December.
What is a White Christmas? In statistical terms and for those wishing to place a wager, a White Christmas is when snow or sleet actually falls at some stage during the 24-hours from midnight to midnight on Christmas Day at a particular and recognised location. A White Christmas has occurred across the United Kingdom in 1906, 1927, 1938, 1970, 1995, 1996 and 2001. One of the worst snowstorms that occurred over Christmas was back in 1836. An avalanche at Lewes, East Sussex, demolished two houses and caused eight fatalities. To this day the disaster is commemorated in the name of a local pub called The Snowdrop (Roberts 1998).
The last actual recorded White Christmas across many locations in the United Kingdom was in 2004. If snow falls on Christmas Eve or before and is still lying on the ground this does not constitute as a true White Christmas. This situation occurred in 1981 when snow was lying over much of the United Kingdom on Christmas Day from previous snowfalls, though on Christmas Day itself it was dry and sunny across most districts. Statistics show that in the United Kingdom, an official 'White Christmas' occurs approximately every 4 or 5 years.
Many would conclude that the definition of a White Christmas falls within the joy in children's eyes at the excitement of playing safely in the snow, with snowball fights, and building snowmen. It can draw us back and reinforce the importance of family gatherings. Others may just enjoy a time to reminisce when hearing Bing Crosby sing, Irving Berlin's, 'I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas' taken from the film Holiday Inn.
Roberts, S. K. (1998) Dreaming of a White Christmas? Weather, 53, pp. 438.
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