When Irving Berlin wrote “White Christmas” in 1940 in sunny La Quinta, southern California, he was a world away from the glistening tree tops and “sleigh bells in the snow” of his festive classic. Yet snow would have been a big part of his childhood winters in Talachyn, modern day Belarus, where the composer lived before emigrating to the US aged five.
In Britain too, snow is a key component of our collective cultural memory of the festive season, even if we’re long used to being without it. Yet the last Christmas Day the UK enjoyed widespread snow was 12 years ago. Indeed, the Met Office is forecasting mild weather for Christmas 2022 at the time of writing.
Go back a century and a half, however, and white Christmases were not such a rarity. Between 1400 and 1850, the UK experienced a “little ice age” that brought about notably harsh winters.
White Christmases were common occurrences in the 18th and 19th centuries, according to data shared with the New Statesman by the Met Office. It is not for nothing that A Christmas Carol (1843) portrays Ebenezer Scrooge in a snowy London on Christmas Day.
With the little ice age well behind us, and the planet suffering catastrophic climate change, the prospects of a UK winter white-out look ever-more remote.
For snow to fall and to stick around, there need to be cold temperatures. But climate change means the world is warming. Globally, the temperature has now risen by around 1.2°C above pre-industrial times, and the last eight years in the UK were the warmest on record.
The average UK temperature in December last decade was 4.8°C; in the 1890s, it was 3.1°C.
Recent years have had considerably less snowfall over the whole winter period than was typical earlier in the 20th century. Five of the six years with the least snowfall in the past 50 years have occurred since the year 2000. Five of the snowiest six years over that same period occurred before 1990.
According to a 2020 study from the Met Office, snow could disappear completely from the UK by the end of the century.
If you live on high ground, or in Scotland, then white Christmases are not so unusual. Indeed, a small minority (at least 5 per cent) of UK weather stations have recorded snowfall on half of the Christmas Days since 1960. Yet there has only been widespread Christmas snowfall – defined as when more than 40 per cent of stations report snow on the ground by 9am on 25 December – four times since 1960. The last time was in 2010, when snow was recorded on the ground at 83 per cent of stations and snow was falling at 19 per cent on Christmas Day.
The year 2021 was also technically a white Christmas, with 6 per cent of weather stations recording snowfall on Christmas Day. The previous year also saw 6 per cent recording snow, while no station recorded any in 2018 and 2019 at all.
[See also: This is how you don’t celebrate Christmas]