December 21, 2011, by Andrew Burden
21 December: Christmas Day weather forecast
This weather chart from Christmas Day 1951 was drawn using recordings from outside of the University’s School of Geography. The reason that the report caught our eye is not because it was a white Christmas that year, but because the chart has been given a truly festive feel with holly around the edges and a snowman smoking a pipe at the top.
Dr Georgina Endfield is Associate Professor and Reader in Environmental History at the University. We asked her to tell us about why we’re so obsessed with the prospect of a white Christmas and what the chances are of seeing snow this year:
Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow…
The weather has always been a favourite topic of conversation for the British. But when people talk about the weather – particularly in regard to Christmas time – they draw upon ‘recollections’ that are tinged with nostalgia and are not always accurate. It is also true that dramatic events seize popular imagination more than ‘normal’ seasonal variability and tend to dominate popular ‘weather memory.’
Exceptionally severe winters, for example, often claim priority in people’s memories as idealised stereotypes of seasonal conditions. The wistfulness associated with white Christmases represents a case in point.
Professor Mike Hulme from The University of East Anglia has recently suggested that ‘the expectation of a white Christmas in the UK is culturally perpetuated by the imagery and expectation reiterated every festive season, yet the likelihood of snow at Yuletide in most parts of England is now less than one in 10 years.’
I’m dreaming of a white Christmas…
Professor Hulme also adds that people’s nostalgia for snowy festive seasons is often based on ‘statistically incorrect data,’ the source of the belief stemming from popularly held ‘prominent but unrepresentative examples.’
In fact, the ‘memory’ of a white Christmas Day may owe more to the selective recollection of unusual episodes of extreme weather, and the reproduction of countless images of snowy Dickensian street scenes on festive greetings cards and advent calendars each year, than to any real characteristics of the contemporary British climate.
Extreme snowy winters, including those experienced in the past two years, similarly lodge themselves in popular memory relative to milder seasons. But the point is that such extremes, because they are extreme, and because of the often dramatic social and economic implications associated with them, become inscribed into the cultural and material fabric associated with the British winter.
These extraordinary weather conditions go on to represent inaccurate benchmarks against which our contemporary winters are compared. As a result, each year in the run up to the ‘big day’, the media, the public and of course the bookmakers, once again turn their attention to the likelihood of a white Christmas.
Place your bets…
So what are the odds of snow on Christmas Day 2011? At the time of writing, in the first week of December, the country is undergoing a spell of cold and wintry weather, but will this persist into the Christmas period?
David King, based in Edenbridge, Kent, and member of the Climatological Observers Link, one of the premier amateur meteorological organisations in the UK, specialises in weather prediction based on British weather lore and phenological observations.
David’s decades of research into this fascinating but under-studied field of meteorology afford him something of a unique insight into weather prediction year on year. He is convinced that Christmas day this year will be sunny, dry and, most significantly, snow free – or what one may in fact argue to be a normal, late December day.
Whatever the weather, I wish you all a merry Christmas and a peaceful new year.
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 Hulme et al., (2009) Unstable climates: Exploring the statistical and social constructions of ‘normal’ climate, Geoforum, 40 (2):197-206, on 199