The white stuff

By Matt Elton, 22 December 2009 - 11:50am

With snow continuing to fall over the country, Alan Crosby takes a look back at the history of Britain's White Christmases

Alan Crosby, editor of The Local Historian
Tuesday 22 December 2009
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I don’t usually dream of a White Christmas because although it’s lovely to look at (and if I was – let’s say – 40 years younger it would be great to play in), the snow’s really a great nuisance.

Not least, how do we get out to the Festive Supermarket along with ten thousand other people, frenziedly buying everything on the shelves as though the shops are shut for six weeks?

But I’m writing this looking out at the snow falling from a heavy grey sky, and with several inches already fallen so the car looks like an igloo... it might be a White Christmas after all. Our images of winter snow are part of the collective memory – not least, all those Christmas cards showing the white stuff, deep and crisp and even, while carol singers carrying lanterns plod along streets that come straight out of Cranford.

Those Dickensian scenes – the D word is unavoidable – are part of the package that includes Christmas trees and Christmas cards, usually blamed on Prince Albert, who is alleged to have imported all these schmaltzy sentimental ideas in the 1840s.

But it was part of a much longer period of particularly cold winters, and older images of Christmas, going back into the 18th century, include the extraordinary frost fairs on the Thames and other rivers. The intense cold froze the rivers so solidly that they could bear the weight of crowds of people, horses and carts, booths, and even (it is said) bonfires.

Then there were the record low temperatures and huge snowfalls of the 1770s and 1780s. Gilbert White, the rector of Selborne in Hampshire, wrote of the bitter winter of 1776 that "many of the narrow roads were now filled [with snow] above the tops of the hedges," and that on 31 January the temperature at Selborne was -32 degrees.

In London the snow lay for 26 days and was so deep that, as White reported, there was no noise, because it muffled the sound of hooves and wheels in the streets.

Six years later the frost was so severe that it even killed the ivy and the holly in the woodlands of the Hampshire countryside. That really is cold – particularly with the lack of central heating in 1784!

Have a happy Christmas and best wishes for 2010.

 

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Christmas is coming...
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The dark side of winter
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Christmas is coming...
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The dark side of winter
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