Snow. Every Christmas, we dream of it, wish for it, and ask meteorologists how good our chances are of getting it. And yet, at other times of the winter season, this same weather event is considered (by some) to be an unwanted inconvenience. But why does this opinion of snow swing from one extreme to the other? What is it about snow on Christmas that’s such a must-have?
White Christmas: Seasonal Origins
The winter solstice, or first day of winter, falls on December 21-22. This is extremely close to Christmas Day, which is observed on December 25. The proximity with which these two events occur is an important connection--after all, if Christmas occurred during one of the other seasons, snow would be a moot point--but by itself, date isn't enough to fully explain the winter/Christmas relationship.
To find out more, let's explore one of the snowiest periods in recorded history--a period of cold climate known as the Little Ice Age.
White Christmas: Climatological Origins
The Little Ice Age is the name given to a period of cold climate that lasted from the 16th to 19th centuries (mid 1500s to 1800s). During the Little Ice Age, temperatures were typically 1-2°C below normal. This may not sound like much, but it was enough to make winters in the Northern Hemisphere (especially in Europe and North America) more severe and prolonged. Snowfall was heavier, much more frequent, and slower to melt. Springs and summers were also reportedly cool and wet.
Such weather extremes greatly influenced the inhabitants of these regions. This is evidenced in the art and literature of the time, which includes frequent references to winter. Ice skating and winter landscapes were commonly depicted by artists like Pieter Bruegel and Thomas Wyke. In fact, cold and snow was such a part of everyday life, that festivals called frost fairs (fairs held on frozen rivers and canals) were popular celebrations at the time.
But how does the Little Ice Age relate to Christmas? We've already learned that winter was a popular theme during the Little Ice Age period. Well, Christmas was too. Many of the Christmas stories that are popular today were actually written during the Little Ice Age. Whether the simultaneous popularity of these two topics is simply a coincidence, or the preoccupation with winter and winter festivals led people of the time to focus on that season's grandest celebration--Christmas--is unknown. Regardless, this association of winter and Christmas lingers on into the present day.
Here are two examples of Christmas tales written in the midst of the Little Ice Age, with mention of bitter cold and snowstorms. Both Christmas stories are credited with shaping many of the Christmas traditions and lore we keep today. If this is true of the holiday festivities, it would also easily be true of the yuletide weather conditions which are so prevalent in each.
- A Christmas Carol
"...and they stood in the city streets on Christmas morning, where (for the weather was severe) the people made a rough, but brisk and not unpleasant kind of music in scraping the snow from the pavement in front of their dwellings, and from the tops of their houses, whence it was mad delight to the boys to see it come plumping down into the road below, and splitting into artificial little snow-storms." (Charles Dickens, 1843)
Charles Dickens not only paints the picture of winter scenes throughout his novel, but his character Scrooge is considered to be the very embodiment of winter. Of him, Dickens says, "No wind that blew was bitterer than he, no falling snow was more intent upon its purpose."
- The Night Before Christmas
"The moon on the breast of the new fallen snow,
Gave the luster of mid-day to objects below;"
(Clement Clarke Moore, 1823)
This poem tells of a visit from St. Nicholas on Christmas Eve night. Moore's inspiration is said to have come from a sleigh ride on a snowy winter's day in New York.
So next time you hear the words "White Christmas," think back to the cold and snow of the Little Ice Age and thank climate (and literature) for creating this cozy Christmas tradition.