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    Jesse Ferrell

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    Climate Origins of a White Christmas

    December 14, 2006; 11:35 AM ET

    2013 UPDATE: New White Christmas Maps are now available in my new blog @ http://tinyurl.com/WhyWhiteXmas.

    Why do we all dream of a White Christmas? The holiday season is invariably viewed as a snowy event, even though most populous places in The United States and Europe have little chance of seeing snow on the ground by the end of December. The map below shows areas that have a chance (yellow to cyan) of seeing a significant amount of snow on the ground like our Christmas cards and songs promise. You'll notice that few cities have a shot. What gives?


    HISTORICAL CHANCE OF 5 INCHES OF SNOW ON CHRISTMAS
    | MORE MAPS

    Blame it on what Climatologists call "The Little Ice Age," a period when the entire globe was much cooler than it is now, causing raw, extended winters across northern parts of Europe and the U.S. The Little Ice Age generally is said to have ended in the mid 1800's after the third minimum of global temperatures occurred [WikiPedia]. It turns out that much of Christmas lore is trapped inside.

    The graph above* shows temperatures during the last 160 years. Global Warming aside, it's clear that we're much warmer now than we were in 1600, or even 1850.The pink area indicates the Little Ice Age and the dark pink band indicates the time during which the most memorable Christmas stories were written. Below I discuss three of the most famous pieces.

    Let's take a look at some specific pieces of Holiday Lore:

    OVER THE RIVER AND SNOW IN BOSTON IN NOVEMBER?

    First, Wikipedia says that "Over the River and Through the Woods" (which is about heavy snow at Thanksgiving in a suburb of Boston, Massachusetts!) was produced by Lydia Maria Child in 1844. (The suburb is Medford, Mass. [Google Map]).

    A SNOWY CHRISTMAS CAROL IN THE U.K.:

    Charles Dickens released "A Christmas Carol" in 1843. The inspiration for the fictional town was Bayham Street in Camden Town, part of London. He moved there as a child in 1822. His photographic memory (answers.com) probably stored shots of various snowstorms that occurred in December during the Little Ice Age. Although he mentions snow a lot in the book, ironically the original commissioned illustrations by John Leech are all inside shots -- no snow. It's taken 150 years of remakes (over 50 movies!) plus artists creative talents to interpret the book's cold climate for us and burn into our minds those pictures of a snow-covered London street (like this one from Harper-Collins).

    Although he describes the cold Scrooge using winter terms near the beginning of the novel, it's not until "Stave 3: The Second of the Three Spirits" where he goes into detail about the heavy snow on the ground and falling:

    So did the room, the fire, the ruddy glow, the hour of night, 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. By this time it was getting dark, and snowing pretty heavily...

    By the way, if you haven't seen the 1999 remake with Patrick Stewart, it's worth a view.

    TWAS THE SNOWY NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS IN NEW YORK:

    Here's another classic:

    The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow
    Gave the lustre of mid-day to objects below...


    Sound familiar? The RenewAmerica Website says:

    Clement Moore wrote The Night Before Christmas (1822) during [a] cold snap. The poem describes new-fallen snow on Christmas Eve, and reindeer, which are Arctic creatures, pulling Santa's sled.

    Their insinuation that reindeer were more commonplace in populated areas during The Little Ice Age, and that this might have inspired hooking them to Santa's sleigh, is intriguing. (Maps of reindeer populations for the last 150 years aren't available on the Internet though certainly this map of current habitat does not include any populated areas of North America or Europe). The article also points out that "During the Little Ice Age, Christmas revived as a winter festival with both sacred and secular qualities.."

    Wikipedia says that Clement Moore published the poem in the Troy, New York (near Albany) [Google Map] Sentinel.

    BUT WHAT ABOUT THE SONG "WHITE CHRISTMAS"?

    So what about "White Christmas", the popular song in the 1940's? According to Trivia-Library.com, White Christmas was written by Irving Berlin as part of a film called "Holiday Inn" in 1942 (This article by Doctor Weather has detailed information on the writing of it). Bing Crosby both starred in the film and sung the song, turning it into the 2nd most popular Christmas song in America. "Holiday Inn" got a 7.5 on IMDB, which is pretty good if you're familiar with the site's rating system. The movie was later redone as "White Christmas" in 1954 (again with Bing). Two of the movie's characters, who have a song-and-dance act, travel to Vermont to do a Christmas show. Although frequent cold and snowy winters were already a thing of the past by 1942, most seasoned actors and writers of that era would have undoubtedly heard stories about White Christmases from their parents or grandparents, who would have been kids in the late 1800s, when the Little Ice Age was on its way out.

    CONCLUSION: DREAM ON

    Unfortunately, there's no concrete proof that winters during the mid 1800's were snowier than now (at least in the U.S. where the oldest Philadelphia records date back to only 1872). But from the study above, I think it's clear that we can lay the blame for dreaming of White Christmases squarely on The Little Ice Age. The BBC in the United Kingdom agrees, saying:

    "If current research is correct, it looks like dreaming might be as close as we get to seeing snow at Christmas, if at all."

    I've only seen three White Christmases, two in North Carolina (1984 and 1989) and one here in Central Pennsylvania (2002, photo above). I don't expect to see them in any more frequency in the future, but I can still dream...


    A WHITE CHRISTMAS HERE IN CENTRAL PA IN 2002

    NOTE: This blog was updated in November 2009 with larger graphics and corrected links but the content was not changed outside of updating the number of White Christmas movies from "48" to "over 50" and adding the Reindeer Habitat map link.

    *NOTE: The original graph from WikiPedia published in 2006 in this blog was replaced with the graph above (source) in 2013. I feel it is a more fair climate graph, because it takes the years 2000-2012 into account and avoids off-topic "Hockey Stick" discussions.

    The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of AccuWeather, Inc. or AccuWeather.com

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