The Little Ice Age That Made Christmas White Forever (McGill OSS)

3 minute read

Our collective vision of Christmas landscapes is so immersed in snow that the very phrase “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas” conjures up imagery that is nearly all frosted, sparkling and white. This even though a snow-covered Christmas is the exception rather than the rule for the majority of the world.

Despite what the song “White Christmas” would make you think, for more than half the continental U.S., there is less than a 50% chance of a white Christmas occurring. Snow on December 25th is rare in the U.K. and not even as common in the Great White North of Canada as you may expect! So why do we pine for a pearly white holiday time?

Maybe Bing Crosby crooning, “I’m dreaming of a White Christmas, just like the ones I used to know,” has given you the impression that climate change is to blame for the seeming lack of modern-day snowy holidays. Global warming certainly has played a role in decreasing the chances of frosty festivities and will continue to do so. But the real reason behind our widespread association of Christmas and snow is less to do with changing weather patterns and more to do with our media.

Charles Dickens’ classic tale “A Christmas Carol” was written and published in England during the Victorian era. Where nowadays, you see far more fake snow than real, during Dickens’ early life, winters in the U.K. were snow-filled times of “piercing, searching, biting cold.” The 16th to the 19th century was a climatic period known as the Little Ice Age. As a result, most of Europe saw colder, longer, and more snowy winters than previously known. Winters cold enough to allow the River Thames frost fairs to occur on a frozen-solid Thames—something that hasn’t happened since 1814.

While familiar to us in much of Canada, the lasting snowy landscapes and beauty created by ice and frost were novelties to many artists, and Father Winter served as a muse for many. The Little Ice Age period gave birth to the vast majority of European depictions of winter in paintings and inspired numerous enduring works of art.

Charles Dickens has been called the man who invented Christmas—a definite exaggeration. But we can thank him, Jacob Marley, and Ebenezer Scrooge for helping to cement a Christmas aesthetic that has persisted with impressive consistency. Christmas is a time of nostalgia for many of us, and it was no different for Dickens. His stories contain references to the snowy cold winters of his childhood, making it ironic, in a sense, that we should now feel a sort of nostalgia for Dickens’ childhood winters too.

Our views that Christmases should be snowy don’t exclusively come from the England of yore. New media and art through the years have iterated upon Dickens’ Christmas setting and only further enshrined our association of Christmastime as snow filled. The United States have contributed their fair share to the frost-filled Christmas media. From “A Visit from St. Nicholas”—better known as “’Twas the night before Christmas”—discussing newly fallen snow to stories like “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” by Theodor “Dr. Seuss” Geisel, to the lithographic prints of Currier and Ives and the Christmas scenes of Norman Rockwell. The classic Christmas movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” even won an award for developing a new version of fake snow to replace the painted cornflakes used previously!

While Bing Crosby sings less about the white Christmases he personally knew and more about the ones we as a society used to know, the man who wrote the lyrics for “White Christmas,” Irving Berlin, was likely talking about both. a Jewish immigrant to the U.S., Berlin was born in Tyumen in modern-day Russia. With average daily December temperatures of -12.9 ˚C, he very well may have been referencing both his childhood Christmases and the historic Victorian ones enshrined in our holiday ideals.

This article was written for the McGill Office for Science and Society. View the original here: https://www.mcgill.ca/oss/article/history-environment/little-ice-age-made-christmas-white-forever

Advertisement

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s