What is a White Christmas? Definition of the term - and how many snow-filled festive seasons we’ve had in recent history

Will it snow this year? White Christmases are more common than you’d think, although they’re very rarely impressive

Thursday, 8th October 2020, 8:25 am

As Christmas edges ever nearer, people will be starting to plan for the big day to make sure everything's just right for the holiday.

But there's one thing we always hope for at this time of year, a weather forecast that's going to see us waking up to a world turned white with snow.

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So, will we see the fabled White Christmas this year? Here's everything you need to know.

(Photo: Shutterstock)
(Photo: Shutterstock)

How likely is a White Christmas?

38 of the last 54 years Christmases have been 'white'.

That sounds like a lot, but when you think about what a White Christmas technically is, it's not so impressive.

The definition the Met Office uses to define a white Christmas is for one snowflake to be observed falling in the 24 hours of 25 December somewhere in the UK.

That means very rarely have any of those white Christmases actually seen blanket coverings of snow, and there has only been a widespread covering on the ground four times in the last 51 years.

When was the last white Christmas?

Technically, 2017 was the last white Christmas, and was actually the second one in consecutive years, following a similar Christmas in 2016.

However, neither Christmas saw widespread snow, and there were no reports of snow actually settling on the ground.

The last Christmas that could be considered a true white Christmas was 2010. That year, snow coverings were reported by 83% of the weather stations used by the Met Office to monitor snowfall, the highest amount ever recorded.

Will there be a White Christmas?

Obviously, with Christmas being a number of weeks away (and accurately predicting the weather being tricky at the best of times), it's hard to say whether it's going to snow on Christmas Day.

Snow prediction is a notoriously difficult science, even trickier than trying to work out what other types of weather are likely to do.

That's because the freezing level (the altitude boundary at which precipitation will fall as snow rather than rain) can change hour by hour, across the country, or even a few miles down the road.

The Met Office say they can accurately forecast if snow is likely on any given Christmas Day "up to five days beforehand", so you might want to check the weather reports a little nearer the time.

Currently, the Met Office’s long range forecasts only run until early November.

That’s because “when looking at forecasts beyond five days into the future the chaotic nature of the atmosphere starts to come into play,” they say.

“Small events currently over the Atlantic can have potentially significant impacts on our weather in the UK in several days' time.”

Why doesn't Britain see much snow?

It might seem as if Britain hardly ever sees a coating of the white stuff, and though recent years have brought us Beasts from the East and other heavy snow dumps, in the grand scheme of things they're few and far between.

There's a reason for this, and it's all to do with the size of Britain, and its being surrounded by water.

In winter, land gets cold more quickly than the sea, so large land masses like continental Europe, Canada or the United States often get cold enough for snow to fall frequently.

But, as the Met Office explains, "the UK, being an island surrounded by the milder water, the air can often warm up slightly before it reaches our shores."

Because of this, we often see rain rather than snow.