When Was the Very First 'White Christmas'?

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How Snow on Christmas was Popularized

Fresh snow
Dennis McColeman / Getty Images

Snow. Every Christmas, we dream of it, wish for it, and ask meteorologists how good our chances are of getting it. And yet, at other times of the winter season, this same weather event is considered (by some) to be an unwanted inconvenience.

What is it about snow on Christmas that’s such a must-have?

It's a Sign of the Season

The winter solstice, or first day of winter, falls on December 21/22. This is extremely close to Christmas Day, which is observed on December 25. The proximity of these two events is an important connection -- after all, if Christmas occurred during one of the other seasons, snow would be of little consequence. However, date, by itself isn't enough to fully explain the winter-Christmas relationship.

A Tradition Started in the Little Ice Age 

The true beginnings of White Christmases (and a couple more of our Christmas traditions) can be traced back to one of the snowiest periods in recorded history called the Little Ice Age.

The Little Ice Age is the name given to the period of cold climate that lasted from the 16th to 19th centuries (mid 1500s to 1800s). During the Little Ice Age, temperatures were typically 1-2°C below normal. This may not sound like much, but it was enough to make winters in the Northern Hemisphere (especially in Europe and North America) more severe and long-lived. Snowfall was heavier, much more frequent, and slower to melt. Springs and summers were also reportedly cool and wet.

As These winter weather extremes greatly influenced the inhabitants of these regions. This is evidenced in the art and literature of the time, which includes frequent references to winter. Ice skating and winter landscapes were commonly depicted by artists like Pieter Bruegel and Thomas Wyke. In fact, cold and snow was such a part of everyday life that frost fairs (festivals held on frozen rivers and canals) were popular celebrations at the time.

How does all of this relate to Christmas, you ask?

We've already learned that winter was a popular theme during the Little Ice Age period. Well, Christmas was too. Many of the Christmas stories that are popular today, including A Christmas Carol and The Night Before Christmas, were actually written during the Little Ice Age. Both Christmas stories are credited with shaping many of the Christmas traditions and lore we keep today. So it's entirely possible that the climate and preoccupation with winter and winter festivals during that time became a seasonal tradition, too.

The below quotes exemplify just how prevalent and intertwined the topics of Christmas and snow were during the Little Ice Age period. 

"...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." (-A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens, 1843)

"No wind that blew was bitterer than he, no falling snow was more intent upon its purpose."
(-A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens, 1843)

"The moon on the breast of the new fallen snow
Gave the luster of mid-day to objects below;" 

(-The Night Before Christmas, Clement Clarke Moore, 1823)

So the next time you hear the words "White Christmas," think back to the cold and snow of the Little Ice Age and thank climate (and literature) for creating this cozy Christmas tradition.

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Means, Tiffany. "When Was the Very First 'White Christmas'?" ThoughtCo, Nov. 22, 2016, thoughtco.com/origins-of-white-christmas-3444526. Means, Tiffany. (2016, November 22). When Was the Very First 'White Christmas'? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/origins-of-white-christmas-3444526 Means, Tiffany. "When Was the Very First 'White Christmas'?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/origins-of-white-christmas-3444526 (accessed November 23, 2017).