Where Did the “White Christmas” Come From?

December 15, 2011 3 Comments

Through the years I have become more and more amazed at the number of people who hate Winter. I am unsure as to the exact reason but it is interesting. Many people I meet actually use the word “hate” when talking about Winter. I would say the percent of people who at a minimum loathe winter, has risen from about 50% two decades ago to around 80% today. This is based on a small sampling of the people I run into on a day-to-day basis. If there is one place where you would think people would enjoy Winter it is Wisconsin. We have one of the more cold and snowy climates in the continental U.S. It Winter was such a problem, you would think the population of the state would be declining rather rapidly, as people move to warmer states or countries.

So what is behind this trend. I can only speculate. I suspect that some of it has to do with the population getting older on average. It becomes harder to deal with extremes in temperature (and humidity) as the human body grows older. I think part of it might be a shift in lifestyles as well. Around the area there are still a lot of people who enjoy skiing, ice fishing, and snowmobiling, but as a percentage of the population, the numbers are probably down. Younger folks spend more time on the Internet or playing video games than running around outside. Also, most people work in office buildings and spend a lot of their time in climate controlled houses. Therefore, they are probably not as adaptable to the changes in weather as people in the past. The commuting lifestyle probably plays a part as well. When more people have to drive a long distance to work , Winter brings a many more reasons to grumble.

Well, for all of you who dream of tropical locations this time of year. For all of you who “hate” Winter and snow. I have some good news for you. No, it is not that “real” Winter conditions are gone from the forecast for the next few days. It is that we have now passed our earliest sunset of the year. If you suffer from cabin fever (or SAD), this is one of the first turning points in the season that give you hope of a brighter Spring to come. Yesterday the sunset was 4:17pm. Today you get a few extra seconds of sunlight (if the sun makes and appearance late this afternoon). The sunset today is 4:18pm. The sunset will now get later every day as we head into mid Winter and eventually into Spring. Yes, it is true that the shortest day of the year is the 21st, but already our sunset time has turned the corner.

Historical Odds of a White Christmas

For the small percentage of people who revel in real Wisconsin Winter weather, I don’t have much good news. The historical probability of a “White Christmas” here in Northcentral Wisconsin is over 90%. I can only remember 2 holiday seasons in the past 15 years that were not white. This year might be the third. There is a chance of a dusting of snow today and again Friday night into Saturday, but with temps remaining above normal (especially on Sunday), any snow that does fall will likely melt. The only spots that might retain the snow they have right now are north of Marathon county. Locations like Minocqua and Rhinelander might still have an inch or two on the ground by Christmas.

Of course, the weather pattern in and around Wisconsin can change quite fast, so even though there does not look to be much chance of heavy snow next week, I wouldn’t completely rule it out. There will be a couple of storm system traversing the mid-section of the country and if either one takes a turn a bit farther to the north, then we could end up with some accumulations of snow. We will keep you up to date on any changes.

While on the “White Christmas” topic, I wanted to ask about something I was musing about the other day. Where does the dominant “White Christmas” theme come from (besides just the Hollywood movie)? Judging by the map above, most of this country does not experience a white Christmas. The vast majority of the country has a brown Christmas every year. This is the case for most of the world as well. I would venture to guess that well less than 20% of the world’s population experiences a white Christmas every year. 

We did have a bit colder climate a hundred years ago which likely led to a bit more snow, but I can’t see that fully explaining the “White Christmas” expectation. I suppose some of the Christmas-time entertainment and mythology has something to do with it, or at least re-enforces the theme. Santa Claus is said to be from the north pole and frosty the snowman couldn’t live in a warmer climate. With respect to the religious side of the season, The bible says that Jesus was born in Bethlehem and there is rarely any snow in that region of the world. Not back then. Not now.

My leading theory is that a large percentage of Christians ended up living in northern Europe over the last millenium or so and when they immigrated to the U.S. many of them first settled in the northeast and the Midwest where snow was more common, so snow and “white” just naturally came to be more associated with Christmas than brown and/or palm trees.

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Some odds and ends:

Paul Allen's Proposed Space Plane

In space news, Paul Allen (co-founder of Microsoft) has announced plans to build a new space launch system. It will essentially be one of the biggest planes ever built. It will look like the White Knight of Virgin Galactic/Scaled Composites fame only be much bigger with 6 jet engines. The plane will carry a rocket (a SpaceX Falcon rocket most likely) to a high altitude before releasing it. The rocket will then ignite and propel itself the rest of the way into space.

From what I gather, this will be a bit more cost effective and efficient because the first 30,000 feet of the launch will be aided by atmospheric lift/aerodynamics. I don’t think the savings will be BIG, but incremental improvement is the name of the game nowadays. I am also excited to see more concrete plans within the commercial/private space industry. If man is ever going to physically walk on the moon or other celestial body, it will likely be accomplished by the private sector, not government agencies.

In other space news, a successful robotic NASA mission continues on Mars. The Opportunity rover continues to perform well and recently found more evidence of past water on Mars.

Outlasting the Mars rover by many years are the intrepid Voyager satellites. They are now starting to move into interstellar space - out of the influence of our solar system.

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As a follow up to the good vs. bad “green” energy solutions, biofuel was dealt another blow recently. Range Fuels has gone bankrupt. They planned to make methanol from wood chips. They received hundreds of millions of government grants and loans to keep moving forward over the last 4 to 5 years but they were unable to turn a profit with their product. This is particularly troubling considering that the price of oil has been so high recently, around $100 a barrel. One would think that biofuel would become more competitive as the price of oil stays high.

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In climate news, the Durban meeting recently wrapped up with some small steps into the future. Climate “negotiators”, scientists, and activists agreed to develop a new climate treaty before 2020.

Even as the climate conference wraps up, recent polling shows people are not as worried about “climate change” as they were 4 or 5 years ago. Some of this probably has to do with the climategate emails and with the fact that the theorized changes in the climate will happen over a long time period. If the global temperature only goes up a degree or so by 2050, not many people will get too upset (right now).

Have a pleasant Thursday! Meteorologist Justin Loew.

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  1. Ray says:

    I had been thinking about that same topic on white Christmas’. I found the same answers you wrote about. I hate winter, because it’s ; cold, sky and ground are white barren, frozen solid everything, everything takes more work, breaks more often, or is dead looking to dead – like plants. With three of the four last winters having near record amounts of snow, it just gets to be a bit much. Like having to shovel almost every day for four months! Snow encrusted roads for all of January and into February two years of the last four. Not being able to wash the salt off the vehicles all winter. It doesn’t help the things I like to do outside require no ice on the water, or for the ground to be thawed, let alone have snow on it. Once the ice and frost come out I am outside even if its 99 degrees. To me the surprise is how many people hate temps over 75 degrees, but that is probably a topic for next Junes blog?

  2. jloew says:

    I guess the warm season in Wisconsin is good enough for most people that they don’t move just to avoid the Winters.

  3. Ray says:

    Problem is unless something major happens, like job loss or medical issues, its hard to up root and move just because the weather is horrible almost half the year ;-).

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