Why do we get so excited about snow?

Graphic showing UK average temperatures for November
Graphic showing UK average temperatures for December
Graphic showing UK average temperatures for January
Graphic showing UK average temperatures for February

All figures are long-term averages between 1971 and 2000. Days of snow refers to the number of days when there was snow on the ground at 0900. Maximum temperature is between 0900 and 2100. Minimum temperature is between 2100 and 0900.

For many in the UK, snow is something special, something we get sentimental about, something fascinating. But why do we feel this way about it?

Waking up and walking out on a snowy morning, in the UK at least, is a singular feeling.

Despite every adult's concern about an ill-prepared transport network grinding to a halt, we are also wrapped up in the crunch of the snow underfoot, the muffling of distant sounds and the all-encompassing white blanket.

Snow reminds us of our youth and also, despite the disconnect with reality, of Christmas. People buy Christmas cards with snow on them, even in parts of the country that do not regularly get festive snow.

Christina Rossetti's famous lines, originally for a poem, although better known as the lyrics to a carol, are one of the more notable descriptions of snow:

In the bleak midwinter

Frosty wind made moan,

Earth stood hard as iron,

Water like a stone;

Snow had fallen, snow on snow,

Snow on snow,

In the bleak midwinter,

Long ago

But our sentimental attitude towards snow doesn't go back throughout history.

Snowy winters

  • 1693: Channel froze
  • 1708-09: Freeze and starvation in Europe
  • 1947: Coal and oil run low in UK
  • 1962-63: Parts of upper Thames freeze

"In the Middle Ages bad weather meant you died," says Robert Penn, co-author of The Wrong Kind of Snow: How the Weather Made Britain.

"Weather as a mere inconvenience is relatively new - it used to be a matter of life and death."

For farmers snow could damage crops and prevent work being done, and the spring thaw could mean flooding for the unfortunate.

It's hard to imagine a peasant of 1550 bouncing out of his hut on a snowy morning and joyfully reaching to scoop up a snowball.

Soldiers have historically not relished snow. Going back to ancient times, military campaigning often stopped completely in winter. Snow makes movement hard.

Historians argue about how much of a role the Russian winter played in the defeat of Napoleon in 1812, but the damage it did to the retreating Grande Armee is immortalised in a slew of snowy and brutal paintings.

Painting of Napoleon Soldiers have historically looked on snow with dread

The deadliest battle in English history, at Towton during the Wars of the Roses, was fought in heavy snow despite being at the end of March. Artists rendered the contrast of red and white with gusto.

In World War II vast, snowy landscapes were the backdrop to battles everywhere from Russia to the siege of Bastogne, in Belgium, where American troops were encircled in a wintry surprise attack.

The weather can have effects on more than just agriculture and warfare. The cold winter of 1947 helped change the attitude of the Labour government to "economic conservatism" as coal and oil supplies ran low, argues Mr Penn.

Our sentimentality about snow is a product of the "post-starvation age" in the UK, at least.

"The idea of it being something we go out and celebrate is pretty recent," insists Mr Penn.

And of course, snow as a rarity is also a relatively recent thing.

Between the 16th Century and the 19th Century we suffered the Little Ice Age. And between 1650 and 1850 snow would have been a common occurrence in the UK, with 1693 seeing the English Channel frozen, says Mr Penn.

"Winters were truly bitter, the land was dead and concrete-solid."

Weak westerlies

The recent British excitement - in the looser sense - about snow might be to do with its rarity in the very recent past.

"Cold winters do tend to clusters in twos, threes and fours when the Atlantic westerlies are at their weakest," says Philip Eden, author of Great British Weather Disasters.

A German man on a snowmobile There is still snow enthusiasm in snowy places

These winds from the west bring the "classic" British winter, which can be wet and windy but is not particularly cold. When they are weak, the snow comes. Mr Eden says we are in such a period of weakening westerlies.

Despite three consecutive years of significant snow, we still find it a novelty. That might not be unrelated to a long period - 1989 to 2002 - where the westerlies didn't weaken and we had mild winters, says Mr Eden.

If you were born in the 1980s or 1990s, the recent snowy years must seem rather exciting. Mr Eden concedes there might very well be a relationship between snow fascination and snow frequency in the UK.

"Places in the world that get snow very occasionally are likely to get out and enjoy it when it happens."

Should it snow in San Francisco or northern Florida or Riyadh (last significant snowfall January 1973), people are going to head out to toboggan.

Snow coping

But people do still get snow joy where snow is perennially guaranteed. Labrador in Canada is one such place. Because the mechanisms are in place for people to cope with snow as a challenge to livelihood, people can therefore enjoy it.

"People are very excited. They are looking forward to getting out on Skidoos (snowmobiles), and enjoying the outdoor lifestyle," says Luke Barry, of the Labradorian newspaper.

There is skating and ice-fishing and instead of making transport more difficult, new routes are opened as lakes freeze.

"Where the winter can last four to five, even six months of the year, you can't stay indoors. People still make snowmen in Labrador," says Mr Barry.

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Of course, in the UK, with the lower level of preparedness, there are many who greet the sight of snow with gloom. And it isn't just drivers and parents with children at shut schools that feel that way.

"A lot of people hate it," says Mr Eden. "As people grow older they can find they hate it. I recognise an element of that in myself. You begin to worry about falling over. But there are some young people who don't like it."

For many people though, there is something fascinating about the snow. It's easy to forget that we've had some ferociously cold snowy post-war winters, like 1947 and 1963, when the snow-restricted period in the 1990s is so recent.

"Our weather memories are remarkably short," says Mr Penn. "We are like goldfish about it. If you ask people when it snowed last winter I bet they would struggle to say."

Below is a selection of your comments

During my school years when I stayed in Dufftown, Banffshire, a place well used to snow, in the winter of 1971, the primary school was closed after a fall of 2ft over two days. However our Sweedish teacher thought we were over-reacting because when he was a child he used to regularly ski out of his bedroom window to school as their front door could not be opened, due to the amount of snow!

Lesley Fraser, Inverness

My most cherished memory of snow was as a young child. In the 70's we farmed between Grassington and Malham on the Wharfedale side of the Pennines. I had been at work with my father feeding cattle whilst is snowed; however, as evening arrived it stopped and revealed a clear star laden heaven. For whatever reason, I can't recall why, my father decided to stride home through the fields which were far too deep for me to walk through. I was therefore treat to a lift home on his broad shoulders surveying the glistening landscape under the beauty of a full moon - a magical experience.

Craig Harrison, Bedale, North Yorks

In my life I'd always wanted to know how it would feel in Winter. My dream came true last winter as I had an opportunity to be in UK. It was fascinating.

Mohamed Arshad, Kulhudhuffushi, Maldives

I remember it was the winter of 1946, I was a barrow boy at the time, always had a pocket full of butter candies. Now you see it was harder in those days because you only had these lightweight clothes if you were of the working class. I remember going to school with newspaper sleeves under my shirt, then again most people did that in those days. The women would heat up lard and rub it on their legs, that's why we called em Lardos in the winter. Ahh memories. Hope you publish this, it'd give an old man great satisfaction.

Harold Briggs, Hampshire

I grew up in Aberdeenshire, about 25 miles west of Aberdeen in an isolated rural area. I still have the diary of Jan 84 when I got two weeks off school because I was snowed-in. I have never forgotten the snow's beauty, each branch and twig limned in silver, walking through deep drifts, people helping each other - and on clear nights the intense cold, wonderful silence and the stars. Despite now being in my 40s, and definitely not wanting to fall over on icy pavements, I still love snow.

Liz Essex, London

I seem to recall the first large flakes of snow falling around 11am on Boxing Day 1962, just avoiding a true White Christmas and it just didn't stop. I lived in North London then and remember, the following day, seeing a driver, trying to get his car through 18" of snow and getting stuck. The bank of snow created when my father was finally able to dig the car out, didn't disappear until March and my mother would periodically attack it with a hammer to try and break it up. I was just old enough to get my first pair of high heels in the January sales and was really frustrated because it was weeks before I could wear them outside. Sadly, none of it stopped us from going to school though!

Liz Power, Eye, Suffolk UK

During the first winter of WWII I lived on the north Norfolk coast and that winter was every bit as bad as the susequent 46/47 winter, in respect of low temperatures, heavy snowfall and long duration. But it went totally unreported in the newspapers and on the radio, since for security reasons there were neither weather forecasts or weather reports. Apparently this was because the weather usually reached us before Gernany and we didn't want them to know either what it was like in Britain or what they could expect .Alas in the circumstances the security measures were of no avail, since the weather was coming to Britain from the continent.

Norman Wells, Tournon Agenais France

Between 1958-60 I was at boarding school in the Lake District. We would go skating on the tarns with the admonishment that falling in icy water was not a good idea. As a treat the headmistress told us to down our pencils in the middle of a Maths lesson and to get our skates on. She had flooded the carpark area in front of the school so that we could practice skating before going on the tarns.

Jane, Essex

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