What's the history behind dreaming of a white Christmas?
By Bianca Barr Tunno, AccuWeather staff writer
Many Americans hope to awake to a snowy Christmas morning, even if the frosty precipitation is unlikely to fall where they live. This expectation of a fresh covering of pure, white snow has been built into our vision of the winter holiday.
But why is the connection between snow and Christmas so strong? Experts say it’s because songs, stories and images come back year after year and have created the tradition of an idealized white Christmas holiday.
1800s: Early ideas of snow at Christmas
“I don’t know that without "Jingle Bells" you would have had that direct association with snow in the United States because the majority of Americans don’t see snow over the holidays,” said Ace Collins, author of “Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas.”
Written in the mid-1800s, “Jingle Bells” offered images of snow and sleighs associated with winter merriment and happiness, but no mention of Christmas. Over time, however, the song became interwoven with the holiday and remains one of the most popular and recognizable Christmas songs around the world.
The poem, "A Visit from St. Nicholas,” was published anonymously in the Troy, New York Sentinel in 1822, according to the New-York Historical Society Museum and Library. Often referred to today as “Twas the Night before Christmas,” the story mentions newly fallen snow on Christmas Eve and St. Nicholas with a flying sleigh filled with toys.
The nostalgia of a cozy, wintry Christmas season extends into artwork of that time period as well. Currier and Ives lithographic prints from the mid- to late-19th century contain snowy scenes of American life at the time and “...have become synonymous with the ideal of a classic American Christmas,” according to Ohio Memory, a collaborative project of the Ohio History Connection and the State Library of Ohio.
In Europe, Charles Dickens published “A Christmas Carol" in 1843, which is filled with references of snow and ice.
Philip Allingham, professor emeritus at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ontario, and an expert in Dickens' Christmas books, told AccuWeather harsh winters in Dickens’ childhood as well as in the 1840s helped create the story’s backdrop of treacherous weather during the Christmas season.
Allingham writes: “Symbolically, the icy walkways and snowy thoroughfares of early Victorian London are an extension of Scrooge's frostiness, so I would not call the chilly weather outside Scrooge's counting-house as idealized. However, when he awakes on Christmas morning to a snow-dusted cityscape the familiar-unfamiliar view from his bedroom window complements his feeling of rejuvenation, of re-birth, of a miraculous inward transformation reflected in externals.”
Allingham noted that although Dickens celebrated the festival of Christ's birth in numerous works, it is “A Christmas Carol” that “…has preserved the Christmas customs of olde England and fixed our image of the holiday season as one of wind, ice, and snow without; and smoking bishop (mulled wine), piping hot turkey, and family cheer within.”
"There’s also a climatological reason we dream of a white Christmas," according to AccuWeather Meteorologist Jesse Ferrell. "Most snowy Christmas lore was created during the 'Little Ice Age' in the 1800s when northern North America and Europe frequently experienced earlier, heavier snowfall and colder weather – something that climate change has now ended."
1900s: Dreaming of a White Christmas
A century later, songs like “Winter Wonderland” (1934), “Let it Snow” (1945) and of course, “White Christmas” (1941) further perpetuated the romanticized combination of winter, snowflakes, Christmas and warmth, Collins told AccuWeather.
“Those songs create images that are so strong they are time machines that come back and visit us each and every year,” he said.
Bing Crosby’s version of “White Christmas,” the biggest selling single of all time, according to Guinness World Records, speaks directly about longing for snow on Christmas. The song resonated with Americans when it debuted Christmas Day 1941 on Crosby’s radio show – just three weeks after Pearl Harbor.
“It served as a secular prayer and it also painted an image of Christmas that carried us through World War II – that tranquil New England kind of Christmas with snow,” Collins said.
Norman Rockwell’s iconic paintings of New England winters and Christmases also contributed to this nationwide winter weather obsession.
“[Rockwell] painted to our best aspirations and the holidays are a time where we strive to reconnect with what’s most important to us – our loved ones and helping out and spreading good cheer,” said Jeremy Clowe, manager of media services at the Norman Rockwell Museum. “It is the perfect time to reconnect with his pictures of Santa Claus or the quaint New England town street. It seems like Norman Rockwell and the holidays go hand in hand.”
And thanks to traditions passed down from generation to generation, Christmas memories loop back around every year and Americans continue to hope for a thick blanket of snow on Dec. 25.
“Snow is the ultimate Christmas wrapping paper. It’s what we wish for. It’s the present we want,” Collins said. “Suddenly the present we have becomes much more beautiful because of the present of snow wrapping it up."
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