It’s been snowing in London today and there has been much talk of a white Christmas as a result, all of which prompted me to dig out some stuff I wrote about snow at Christmas and extreme winter weather round about this time last year (you can see the original posts here and here) and repost them on Another Kind Of Mind. The cold snap is going to continue, so make sure you wrap up warm now, and stay away from the yellow snow…
In the UK, a white Christmas is not as common an occurrance as you might think, mainly because December is early in the season for snow in most parts of Britain (snow is more common in January). And determining what exactly constitutes a white Christmas is a matter of debate.
For most people, when they think of a white Christmas they imagine precisely that – snow falling (and settling) on Christmas Day in large amounts. However, particularly for the purpose of placing bets on the matter, a white Christmas can be as insignificant-sounding as a single snowflake being observed falling during the twenty-four hours of 25th December. According to the Met Office website, the last Christmas to see conditions much like the former was 2004, when snow covered much of Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, the Midlands, north-east and the far south-west of England.
That may have been cold, but count yourself lucky that you weren’t alive during the three hundred years between 1550 and 1850 when an unlucky Britain was in the grip of what became known as the ‘Little Ice Age’. Snow at Christmas was much more common during that period and its association with the season was cemented by the descriptions of festive snow in Charles Dickens’ Pickwick Papers and A Christmas Carol (Dickens, like any good Englishman should, had a strong, scientific interest in the weather).
There has been a distinct hint of winter in the London air these last few days. The days are visibly getting shorter, and the temperature is dropping rapidly. It’s the beginning of December already, and we’re only a matter of weeks from the Winter Solstice and the shortest day of the year. Christmas is less than a month away now, with all the chilly, frosty air and hoped-for snow all that entails. But the modern British winter is actually much milder than it has been in previous centuries, and that’s only partly due to global warming.
Human beings have certainly made one almighty mess of the Earth’s environment, which has had an inevitable knock-on effect on our delicate climate system – the very fact that the next week’s Copenhagen climate summit is happening at all is ample testimony to this. But winter temperatures really were colder in the past, and not just in Britain. Between about 1300 and 1870, Europe and North America found themselves in the grip of what became known as the Little Ice Age.
The Little Ice Age meant that, prior to 1870, winter temperatures were significantly lower and harsher than in the 20th and 21st centuries, and there is still much academic and scientific debate as to why. Some scientists argue that this cooling effect was the result of sunspot activity, others that it was due to the effects of volcanic activity or an instability in atmospheric pressure, still others that it came about after the demographic changes of the Black Death caused decreased agriculture and increased reforestation. Consensus on this one may take some time.
Whatever the cause, things did get seriously frosty for a while, an eventuality that had a huge impact on everyone in Britain, particularly (as ever) the poorer members of society – and, strange as it may seem, this five century-long cold snap is still playing a cultural role in modern British life. In fact, it was some of these early 19th century Little Ice Age winters, in particular, that – via the medium of one Charles Dickens – created the enduring cultural idea that a festive white Christmas was the norm (it isn’t – it is actually more likely to snow in January than at Christmas time in Britain).