Tag Archives: A Christmas Carol

170 years of Christmas Day in London

Christmas in Victorian London is often portrayed as very cold and snowy – picture perfect images of Yuletides past always scream out at us every year we open a box of Christmas cards.

The Temple, Wanstead Park, always looks that much stunning with a covering of snow
The Temple, Wanstead Park, always looks that much more stunning with a covering of snow

But a look back through the meteorological records of the Royal Observatory at Greenwich reveals a very different reality.

The 1840s and 1850s, decades where most Christmas traditions marked today began, were often very mild, wet and windy – indeed the warmest Christmas Day maximum temperature at Greenwich occurred in 1852 when the mercury reached 13.3C.

Like modern times, however, there were exceptions and 1840 was very cold – the record for Christmas Day mentions “trees coated with rime (ice) 3/8 inch thick”!

The following 20 years saw Christmas morning much milder – well over half had maxima of 6C or higher. In 1843, the year Charles Dickens first published A Christmas Carol and the public sent their first Christmas cards, the temperature reached a balmy 10.1C – though dense fog probably made it feel at least a bit more seasonal.

Frosted tree in Wanstead Park by Scott Whitehead
Frost is a common feature of Christmas Day

Four years later in 1847, the year the capital’s Tom Smith invented the Christmas cracker, things were a bit colder – a high of 4.2C and overcast with rain late evening. The following year an image of Victoria and Albert celebrating with their family around a Christmas tree appeared in the Illustrated London News. Like many things Royal down the years it really captured the public’s imagination of taking a spruce or similar evergreen into their living rooms and decorating it every Yuletide.

Christmas two years later, in 1849, was at least cold enough for something wintry to fall. London, however, was still coming to terms with its worst-ever cholera outbreak. With around 14,000 deaths from the disease Christmas was probably not a high priority that winter.

When Good King Wenceslas was first included in Carols for Christmas-Tide in 1853 the day was cold but there was still no “deep, crisp and even” snow or “rude wind’s wild lament”. The day stayed calm and clear.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThough the period either side of December 25th began to be marked with cold, snowy spells it would be another 11 years before London experienced its first official white Christmas in 1864. Sleet, which fell at the end of a 4-day cold spell, probably added to the drama of swimmers taking part in the first Christmas Day swim in the Serpentine, Hyde Park. With a high temperature of just 1.4C it’s quite feasible the few who braved it probably had to break the ice before they took the plunge.

Five years later London experienced another white Christmas with snow falling in a north-easterly breeze – the start of a four-day cold spell.

The joint-coldest Christmas Day on record followed five years later in 1870 with a mean temperature of -7.2C. The building of the Royal Albert Hall was scheduled to be completed by December 25th but it was not until March 29th 1871 that it was officially opened by Queen Victoria.

The remainder of Victoria’s reign was marked with far more white Christmases, a period where nearly two-thirds of Decembers were marked with extended cold, snowy spells. Fog and frost were also frequent.

With a new century and new monarch Christmas-time turned milder and London would have to wait until close to the end of Edward VII’s reign in 1909 to see a ‘white Christmas’ – a poor affair with just a bit a sleet mixed in with the rain late morning. Many probably failed to notice it but it still counts as a white Christmas according to modern bookie’s standards.

Tree damage by the war memorial in Wanstead High Street by Scott Whitehead
Christmas Day can also be stormy

Four of the 26 Christmas Days of George V’s reign were white but the mean temperatures suggest they were all marginal affairs – the core cold weather happening either before or after the 25th. Of note also is the dominance of south-westerlies that brought mild and wet weather – nine out of ten Christmas Days in the 1920s saw rain falling – far in excess of the average for rain on Christmas Day which is 47 per cent.

Just one Christmas was white during George VI’s reign, a ‘good covering of snow’ was recorded by observers at Greenwich in 1938 – the snow falling at the end of a 7-day cold spell.

Sunshine was not a dominant feature of Christmas Day prior to Queen Elizabeth II coming to the throne – the average total in Greenwich from 1877 to 1951 was just under 0.8hrs. Yet the average sunshine total for Christmas Day for the first four years of Elizabeth’s reign jumped to 5.2 hours. The 6.5 hours on Christmas Day 1952 is a record that still stands today! It is remarkable that this record was set just over a fortnight after the Great Smog contributed to the deaths of 4,000 people though other studies put the figure at 12,000 people.

trees in fogThe Clean Air Act 1956 ironically saw the return of dull Christmas Days – though 1956 was a white Christmas with a light covering of snow and a maximum of zero Celsius.

White Christmas Days that followed included 1957 (showery sleet), 1964, 1968 (sleet), and 1970.

Christmas Day 1976 was the last time snow actually fell on Christmas Day in this area though, officially, the last white Christmas was 1996 when a few sleety flakes fell in the early morning.

Christmas Days since then have been mostly mild affairs in London. Of course we had a taste of what a Dickensian Christmas Day was like four years ago when the mean temperature for the day was -1.9C. There were still small patches of snow in our gardens but these were leftovers from a previous dump, so it doesn’t count as a white Christmas. Frustratingly, there has been snow on several Boxing Days in Wanstead (1995 and 1996) and in the weeks running up to Christmas, but not on Christmas day itself.

The warmest Christmas Day in this area occurred in 2015 when a maximum of 15.2C was recorded. Warm air sourced from off the west coast of Africa sent dew points soaring, the minimum on Christmas Day night into Boxing Day did not fall below 13.5C, another record.

25122015
The synoptic chart for 0000z Christmas Day 2015 shows ever-warmer air being pumped northwards over the British Isles.

 

It is surprising how varied the weather can be on Christmas Day – we always think that Yuletide in the ‘Olden Days’ was a cold affair but a look back to 1840 reveals there were times when it was just as mild as it has been in recent years.

1840 xmas

XMAS 1927
Christmas Day morning 1927: the wettest with some 24.9mm recorded

* Statistics for every Christmas Day since 1840 can be found here.

** The definition of a white Christmas used most widely – notably by the bookies – is for a single snowflake, even if it lands in the midst of heavy rain, to be observed falling in the 24 hours of 25 December at a specified location recognised by the Met Office.

*** In the past 170-odd years there has only been 19 white Christmases: in 1864 (sleet), 1869, 1876, 1878, 1884, 1895, 1909 (sleet), 1916, 1919, 1925, 1927, 1938, 1956, 1957 (sleet), 1964,  1968 (sleet), 1970, 1976, 1996 (sleet)

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Will it be a White Christmas this year?

Will it be a white Christmas this year? It’s the question most forecasters get asked year after year as the big day looms less than a month away.

The snow probably won't arrive until after Christmas this year
The snow probably won’t arrive until after Christmas this year

It always fascinates me why Christmas and snow are so closely associated with each other when the odds, especially in London, are so stacked against it happening.

Perhaps it is the Christmas card scenes of Dickensian winters that get people yearning for the white stuff. Indeed, the image of snow covered cobbled streets can probably be blamed on Charles Dickens. The backdrop of A Christmas Carol, and a host of other books, were written when winters, and Yuletide, were generally much colder than they are now. Perhaps it was also the cold Decembers, which came during notably cold years as he was coming of age, that sowed the seed of his impressions of life in London. The Central England Temperature (CET)  for December 1829 and 1830 were 1.4C and 1.8C respectively. To give you perspective the average mean temperature for the Wanstead region in December is 5.6C. Of course we had a taste of what a Dickensian December was like three years ago in 2010 when the average mean temperature was 1.5C. Though bear in mind the mean for 2010 was 10.5C – way above the 8.2C and 8.7C mean temps of 1829 and 1830!

Christmas toys of yesteryear also took every opportunity to perpetuate the snow myth
Christmas toys of yesteryear also took every opportunity to perpetuate the snow myth

But back to this Christmas… First of all, what do we mean by a white Christmas? The definition used most widely – notably by the bookies – is for a single snowflake, even if it lands in the midst of heavy rain, to be observed falling in the 24 hours of 25 December at a specified location recognised by the Met Office. Interestingly, the Met Office uses weather observations from Gravesend-Broadness, some 12 miles away, to show current conditions in Wanstead. A lot, however, could be said by us weather anoraks about the different microclimates between here and south of the Thames.

Technically, there has not been a white Christmas in Wanstead for over 30 years. In 2010, we could still see the Christmas card Victorian snow scene in small patches of our gardens, but these were leftovers of a previous dump, so it doesn’t count. Frustratingly, there has been snow on several Boxing Days in Wanstead (1995 and 1996) and in the weeks running up to Christmas, but not on Christmas day itself. The most typical Wanstead Christmas day weather is mild and dry, although it has rained on 12 of the last 33 Christmas days.

So why does it often snow either side of Christmas but not on the actual day? For Wanstead, Christmas is at the beginning of the period when it’s likely to snow. Looking at climate history, wintry weather is more likely between January and March than December.

iced anemOn average, snow or sleet falls in the UK 5 days in December, compared with 7.6 days in January, 6.8 days in February and 6 days in March. White Christmases were more frequent in the 18th and 19th centuries, even more so before the change of calendar in 1752, which effectively brought Christmas back by 12 days. Climate change has also brought higher average temperatures over land and sea and this generally reduces the chances of a white Christmas.

For snow to fall we need moisture in the atmosphere. Snowflakes start their lives as ice crystals thousands of feet up, and when these tiny ice crystals collide they stick together in clouds to become snowflakes. If enough ice crystals stick together, they’ll become heavy enough to fall to the ground.

Precipitation falls as snow when the air temperature is below 2°C. It is a myth that it needs to be below zero to snow. In fact, in this country, the heaviest snowfalls tend to occur when the air temperature is between zero and 2°C. The falling snow does begin to melt as soon as the temperature rises above freezing, but as the melting process begins, the air around the snowflake is cooled. If the temperature is warmer than 2 °C then the snowflake will melt and fall as sleet rather than snow, and if it’s warmer still, it will be rain.

It sounds a simple combination, but getting precipitation on the days when there are temperatures low enough for snow are few and far between.

temple snowChristmas day in Wanstead, on the balance of probability and from previous patterns, is most likely to be a green and mostly cloudy but dry one. Some brightness is possible with temperature peaking at around 10°C. You can read my full methodology on why I think this may happen here.

Though my attempt to find the probability of a White Christmas effectively rules one out, there is still an outside chance that one could happen.

At this time of year the UK can effectively become a battleground between cold polar continental air to the north or east and moisture-laden mild tropical maritime air to the south and west. Where these air masses meet, snow is possible, but a lot depends on which air mass wins the battle. When battleground situations occur, in one location it can be snowing, but just 20 miles or so down the road it can be raining. This is because there is a fine line between the boundary of the warm and cold air.

There's nothing like an open coal fire. It's even better when it is cold enough outside to have one
There’s nothing like an open coal fire. It’s even better when it is cold enough outside to have one

In years gone by, Wanstead and the surrounding area has often ended up in the cold air mass or the warm air mass. In these situations dry and mild or dry and cold weather is often the result. Of course, in a cold air mass situation there is always the chance of showery activity of the North Sea. The weather so far this winter has not been anything out of the ordinary, so I’m afraid there is nothing to suggest a white Christmas is likely.

If it does turn very cold on December 24, pray for clouds to appear and we could be in with a chance. But at the end of the day we still need that vital combination of temperature and moisture. Snow, like Christmas in that sense, requires some magic.