Page last updated at 00:29 GMT, Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Is a white Christmas just a dream?

By Anthony Reuben
BBC News

With swaths of the country blanketed by snow, there has been growing speculation that 2009 will be a white Christmas for many. But how common really is snow on 25 December in the UK?

snowfall on Christmas day over the years


1964 snow image

A Cotswold farmer feeding his sheep at Northleach, Gloucestershire. Of the Met Office's 481 stations, 108 reported lying snow on Christmas Day in 1964.


1970 snow image

Shortly after Christmas Day 1970, Britain's Raymond Keene (right) has a practice match outside the Hastings International Chess Congress.


1981 snow image

A girl called Sabine taking part in a snowball fight in leg warmers in the winter of 1981/2. 1981 was the only year on record when more than half the UK had snow lying on Christmas Day.


1993 snow image

A snowy scene on Christmas Day in Newcastle. 21% of the UK's weather stations reported snow lying at 9am on Christmas Day in 1993.


1995 snow image

A Coastguard helicopter helps a casualty in heavy snow covering the Shetland Islands at Christmas 1995. The helicopter was also used to ferry pregnant women to hospital a few days before their due dates that year.


2004 snow image

Sheep in the Brecon Beacons in Wales, photographed on Boxing Day. 2004 was the last time bookmakers had to pay out for a white Christmas.

Many of us think of the Christmases of our youth as being snow-laden festivals of sledging and snowball fights.

But that may have more to do with romanticised notions old fashioned Christmases than anything we have lived through. The "Little Ice Age", a period of global cooling that ran between about 1550 and 1850, meant white Christmases were not uncommon in centuries gone by. Its influence is still there in the classic literature of the time and traditional Christmas card designs.

Reliable figures on Christmas snow coverage only go back about half a century. The Met Office has records showing the number of its weather stations around the UK reporting snow lying at 9am on Christmas Day since 1957.

In 29 of the 52 years since then, there has been no snow reported at any of the stations.

London 2/1
Glasgow 11/10
Belfast 9/4
Cardiff 9/4
Source: William Hill at 1000 GMT on 22 December

A further 11 years had less than 5% reporting snow and only once in that period - in 1981 - have more than half of them reported snow.

Many parts of the UK have seen unusually early snow in 2009, but in fact Christmas is quite early for snow in the UK. It is more likely to snow in January.

Snow lying on the ground may be enough to make many of us remember a white Christmas, but it's not sufficient for anyone who fancies a flutter.

The bookies stipulate that a white Christmas requires snow to actually fall on the day itself. Amounts vary from a single flake for Ladbrokes to at least 1mm at a local airport for Paddy Power.

But as a cold-spell struck in the run-up to Christmas 2009, the odds on the first white Christmas in London since 1999 have narrowed to their worst level for 30 years, according to William Hill.

So there is a decent chance you will see snow on Christmas Day, but bear in mind that if you do it will probably be an unusual sight and not a return to the halcyon days of your misremembered childhood.

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