In the UK and Ireland, where I spend much of my year, Christmas conjures up images of twinkling lights on trees and holly wreaths on doors and stockings hung ready for Santa – and outside, snow. A beautiful, crisp blanket over the world, rendering it peaceful and unspoilt and luminously white. Not just a delicate sprinkling, but thick snow – ‘snow on snow’ as Christina Rossetti wrote in her poem ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’.
Snow and Christmas: the two go hand in hand, as shown in the choice of Christmas cards available each year: snowy landscape, snowy village, robin on a snow-laden fence, and so on. But in truth it does not always snow at Christmas, and certainly not heavily. According to The Week, snowflakes have fallen on Christmas Day in the UK 38 times in the last 55 years, and yet only four times in the last 52 years has there been ‘a substantial covering of snow on the ground’.
From where, then, have we developed this association between snow and Christmas, given that the two rarely occur together? Well, you could say that it comes down to collective memory. Back in the 18th and 19th centuries, white Christmases were more common, especially before 1752, when the Julian Calendar was replaced by the Gregorian Calendar, which ultimately led to Christmas Day moving back by 12 days (snow is more common in January). Then, Britain was in what’s been called a ‘Little Ice Age’ and winters were more severe. Some years the River Thames froze over in London and the people of the city would take to the ice for a festive frost fair.
The decade of 1810 was especially frosty, and this had a profound impact on the imagination of a little boy growing up then: Charles Dickens. In the first nine years of his life, he experienced six white Christmases. So when in adulthood he wrote of Christmas in his novels and short stories, he invariably described snowy scenes – and those writings, particularly A Christmas Carol, were very influential on the development of Christmas traditions. (I’ll be writing more on Dickens and Christmas on my blog later this month, so watch this space!)
Sadly, recent analysis from the Met Office in the UK suggests that by 2040 snow may no longer fall in most places in the UK due to the climate crisis (source). So does our idea of an idyllic Christmas scene need to change? I just can’t imagine Christmas without all of our snowy imagery, though. Personally, I will always dream of a white Christmas.