13 December 2011

Non-white Christmas?

The Weather Network produced a story based on statistics released by Environment Canada on the likelihood of a white Christmas in various cities across the country. We don't have any snow on the ground at the moment and there isn't much in the forecast, as the end of the Fall season continues to be milder than usual. I went out for a bike ride yesterday, which isn't something I'd normally expect to be doing in mid-December.
The tree-foraging detail was out in force on Saturday. We repeated last year's self-sufficiency trick of cutting down one of our red cedars for our Christmas tree. Much more fun than picking up one wrapped in netting from a shop!

It seems that this might be the first Christmas for us in Canada where there isn't snow on the ground. Which doesn't bother me in the slightest, but has got me thinking about why it's such a big deal. When did people first start making a fuss about whether it's going to be a white Christmas or not? Is it all because of the song, 'White Christmas'? Was that the trigger? Can we blame Irving Berlin for this obsession? Or is this desire for snow on the ground older than that?

UPDATE: The BBC Magazine has a piece about Charles Dickens this week, which firmly places the blame on him:

Specifically, the idea of a white Christmas - which was and still remains a relatively uncommon occurrence in much of the UK - appears in A Christmas Carol as if it happened each and every year.

In his biography of Dickens, Peter Ackroyd wrote: "In view of the fact that Dickens can be said to have almost singlehandedly created the modern idea of Christmas, it is interesting to note that in fact during the first eight years of his life there was a white Christmas every year; so sometimes reality does actually exist before the idealised image."

I had a quick look at the Project Gutenberg version of the book and the word snow appears 12 times. Generally he's not romanticising it, though: he describes it quite realistically and is mainly using it as a contrast to the warmth and comfort of indoors and the high spirits of the people.

By this time it was getting dark, and snowing pretty heavily; and as Scrooge and the Spirit went along the streets, the brightness of the roaring fires in kitchens, parlours, and all sorts of rooms, was wonderful. Here, the flickering of the blaze showed preparations for a cosy dinner, with hot plates baking through and through before the fire, and deep red curtains, ready to be drawn to shut out cold and darkness. There all the children of the house were running out into the snow to meet their married sisters, brothers, cousins, uncles, aunts, and be the first to greet them.

The house fronts looked black enough, and the windows blacker, contrasting with the smooth white sheet of snow upon the roofs, and with the dirtier snow upon the ground; which last deposit had been ploughed up in deep furrows by the heavy wheels of carts and waggons; furrows that crossed and re-crossed each other hundreds of times where the great streets branched off; and made intricate channels, hard to trace in the thick yellow mud and icy water. The sky was gloomy, and the shortest streets were choked up with a dingy mist, half thawed, half frozen, whose heavier particles descended in a shower of sooty atoms, as if all the chimneys in Great Britain had, by one consent, caught fire, and were blazing away to their dear hearts’ content. There was nothing very cheerful in the climate or the town, and yet was there an air of cheerfulness abroad that the clearest summer air and brightest summer sun might have endeavoured to diffuse in vain.

 The phrase 'white Christmas' doesn't appear at all in the book. I had a look at the Google Ngram viewer, which searches across the text of books published between 1800 and 2000. It's case-sensitive, so I searched for both 'White Christmas' and 'white Christmas' and these were the results (click on the image for a closer look):

The red line is 'White Christmas', the blue one 'white Christmas'. A Christmas Carol was published in 1843 and, sure enough, the phrase starts appearing at about that time, increasing in popularity until the big bump after 1941, when Irving Berlin's song was first performed. It's not a very scientific analysis, I know, but perhaps the original concept does owe more to Dickens than to Berlin.

1 comment:

Lisa from Iroquois, ON said...

I now know more about the concept of a white Christmas than I did before. Thank you for sharing.