The Met Office defines a white Christmas as one that sees a single flake of snow fall from the sky over the UK during the 24 hours of 25 December. As it does almost every year in two, that happened on Friday, with snow falling in Leconfield, East Yorkshire and Wattisham in Suffolk. There was also snow in northeast England and over the mountains of the Scottish Highlands on Christmas Eve.
A couple of flakes, however, is hardly the image of snow-carpeted roofs and fields that decorate so many Christmas cards, nor that of the treetops glistening and sleigh bells ringing that Bing Crosby imagined.
A truly white Christmas, where snow settles on the ground across the UK is rare, seen only a few times in a lifetime. The Met Office says there have only been four Christmases in the UK in the past 50 years where more than 40 per cent of weather stations in the UK reported snow on the ground at 9am.
So why, then, other than as a distraction from coronavirus, was snowfall on Christmas day so talked about this week, the culmination of months of speculation from weather forecasters and bookies?
“The Met Office’s definition of a white Christmas is pretty boring. For me, it’s when you wake up and the scene is magical,” says Trevor Harley, Emeritus Professor of Psychology at the University of Dundee, a psychometeorologist who works at the intersection of psychology and the weather.
“In the UK we are interested in snow, particularly at Christmas, because of three things. First, it is beautiful when you look out in the morning and snow has fallen overnight, creating a breath-taking sight. For children, it’s particularly magical. I remember waking up to a world transformed on Boxing Day morning in Southampton in 1962.
“Secondly, snow is very disruptive and makes driving difficult. That can cause chaos at any other time, but at Christmas you don’t need to go out anywhere.
“Finally, the UK is in a weather zone where we can hope for snow, but do not normally get it. In the Scandinavian countries, they almost always get it, while it’s too warm in most of France and Spain. Here in the UK, the chances of a white Christmas are around one in 20 in the south, and between one in four and one in 10 in the north.
“All this puts us in a positive feedback loop. The chances of a white Christmas are always referred to by weather forecasters, which piles on the pressure, so everyone talks about it. Children pick up on it too, and they are big drivers of fashion.”
Speculation on a white Christmas began as early as September. “Usually, we’d open the market up on site at the start of November, as that’s generally when bets start being placed,” says Alex Apati of the betting company Ladbrokes. “That being said, there’s a small spike around 16 September, simply because the countdown from 100 days to Christmas begins then. Equally, if someone did want to place a bet in a shop on a white Christmas earlier on in the year, that’s something we’d happily do.”
Most bets this year were put on London having a white Christmas, followed by Edinburgh and Manchester. Traditionally, the Met Office used a single location in the country to define a white Christmas, which was the Met Office building in London. However, with the increase in betting on where will see a white Christmas, the number of locations have increased to include Buckingham Palace, Belfast, Aldergrove Airport in Aberdeen, Edinburgh Castle, Coronation Street in Manchester and the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff.
Charles Dickens’ vision
White Christmases were more frequent in the 18th and 19th centuries, even more so before the change of calendar in 1752 which brought Christmas Day back by 12 days. During this time, it was common for the Thames to freeze and in 1536, King Henry VIII travelled crossed the river to Greenwich on a sleigh.
It was in the 1800s that the snow-covered Christmas was popularised, in large part by Charles Dickens. Born in 1812, he witnessed six white Christmases before he was nine. He is thought to have used those early memories in his novels.
“Our concept of a white Christmas is a 19th century media creation,” says Prof Harley. “Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers and A Christmas Carol had a huge influence. Few people read The Pickwick Papers these days, but everyone knows the story of A Christmas Carol, in which snow renews the world, as Scrooge sees the world afresh on Christmas morning. The world cleaned is a theme of nativity in general, while reference to the supernatural around the solstice draws on something primeval.
“Dickens caught a trend, when Christmas was starting to take its modern form and become popular again. As noted in A Christmas Carol, many people still worked on Christmas Day then. I don’t think it’s coincidence that it was published in 1843, the same year that the first Christmas card was sent, and just a few years after Albert and Victoria made a big thing of their tree, and turkeys started becoming the widespread middle class Christmas dinner.”
From mid-twentieth century, it is music that has had a profound influence on our perceptions of what makes an ideal Christmas, adds Prof Harley.
“Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” in particular, of course, has been spectacularly influential – great song, great lyrics, wonderful performances, superb imagery, and excellent performances from so many talented and charismatic performers. How could it not have had an influence?”
We didn’t get a fully-fledged white Christmas this year, but the spectacular sight of a snow-covered landscape could well be on the way, with snow forecast across much of the country in early January.
Christmas is at the beginning of the period when it’s likely to snow, falling an average of 3.9 days in December, compared to 5.3 days in January, 5.6 days in February and 4.2 days in March. So don’t put your snowshoes away just yet.