Snow at Christmas may be a common occurence in Canada and some northern parts of the USA, but it's not so common in Britain, with its relatively mild winters.

Despite most Christmas cards depicting a snowy scene, such truly snowy Christmases have occurred just SEVEN times in Britain since 1900.

So who's to blame for all these expectations the British have every year that this Christmas may finally be a White Christmas?

The culprit may be Charles Dickens.

He wrote A Christmas Carol in 1843 and Britain, in the early 19th Century, experienced much colder winters than we do now.

This is because at the time, Northern Europe was still in the grip of the "Little Ice Age" when average annual temperatures were lower than normal.

Unlike today, for centuries Frost Fairs were held on the frozen River Thames over the Christmas period, the last being held in the winter of 1813-14. An elephant was led across the river below Blackfriars Bridge on that occasion.

The 1810s was the Britain's coldest decade since the 1690s.

Today, unfortunately, the Thames never freezes enough for such fairs to be held.

Dreaming of a white Christmas? Put it down to Dickens’s nostalgia for his lost childhood

Paul Simons and Will Pavia
Wednesday 24th December 2008
The Times

Small flurries of Christmas cards are falling on doormats across the land today, bearing pictures that combine idyllic village scenes with the snow conditions of northern Greenland. The Met Office, which tends to be less romantic in its outlook, provided an entirely different forecast for Christmas Day in Britain yesterday: it will be cloudy, mostly dry and rather mild.

Some will blame climate change for the discrepancy, and imagine snow-bound Christmas Days from distant childhood — yet the truly snowy Christmas of Christmas cards has occurred only seven times since 1900. Before then, sparse records suggest that less than a score of 19th-century Christmases were white.

It now appears that the true culprit was Charles Dickens, whose childhood coincided with a decade of freakishly cold weather. The novelist persistently described a Britain smothered in snow on Christmas Day.

He wrote A Christmas Carol before the Christmas of 1843, while suffering from a cold, walking at night in a feverish state through the streets of London and drawing inspiration from all he saw.

Records suggest the weather was mild at the time, yet Dickens would describe Scrooge in the city on a Christmas morning, watching inhabitants “scraping the snow from the pavements in front of their dwellings, and from the tops of their houses: whence it was a mad delight to the boys to see it come plumping down into the road below, and splitting into artificial little snowstorms”.

Speaking from Lakehead University in Ontario, where real snow lies up to 2ft deep, Philip Allingham, a specialist in Dickens’s Christmas books, told The Times: “The whole of A Christmas Carol is really an invocation of his childhood Christmases with his family before his father fell into debt and was sent to the debtors’ prison.”

Those dearly remembered childhood Christmases coincided with the second decade of the 19th century, the coldest decade in Britain since the 1690s.

Some regard those winters as the last hurrah of a “little Ice Age” that had gripped Northern Europe for several centuries, though the immediate cause of the cold was a series of colossal volcanic eruptions that enveloped the globe in dust and shrouded the sun.

Six of Dickens’s first nine Christmases were white. One of these fell in the winter of 1813-14, when Britain’s last Frost Fair was held on a frozen River Thames and Dickens was nearly 2. The ice around Blackfriars Bridge was thick enough to bear the weight of an elephant.

When, in 1843, Dickens came to raise the Ghost of Christmas Past, he did so with the spirit of those colder Christmases, with “quick wheels dashing the hoar frost and snow from the dark leaves of the evergreens like spray”.

The tale is now credited with establishing the Victorian genre of the Christmas story, and spurring a revival of the celebration of Christmas in early Victorian England.

“A Christmas Carol made Christmas respectable for the English bourgeoisie, who had come to regard it as somewhat antiquated,” Dr Allingham said.

Christmas trees, brought over to Britain by Prince Albert in 1840, were adopted too, after Dickens wrote a popular essay on the subject.

Other tales would later complement Dickens’s idealised snowy Christmas. From the mid-19th century a poem first published in America 20 years earlier gained currency. The Night Before Christmas put Santa Claus on a sleigh pulled by reindeer.

It was also around this time that artists consistently drew Santa in red robes. But Dickens had done most of the groundwork, driven by an enduring obsession for the season. In The Pickwick Papers, published six years before A Christmas Carol, he had written: “Happy happy Christmas, that can win us back to the delusions of our childish days.”

Humbug: an extract from A Christmas Carol (1843)

Charles Dickens, circa 1845

“They stood in the city streets on Christmas morning, where (for the weather was severe) the people made a rough, but brisk and not unpleasant kind of music, in scraping the snow from the pavements in front of their dwellings, and from the tops of their houses . . . The housefronts 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 wagons; furrows that crossed and recrossed 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 . . .”

The River Thames Frost Fair during the winter of 1813/14 was the last one to be held

1814 Frost Fair
It was an exceptional winter that caused ‘Old Father Thames’ to freeze solidly enough for people to walk across - rather than pay a boatman or the toll on the bridge - but the holding of fairs on such occasions had a long history. There were fairs in 1564, 1608, 1634, 1715, 1739, and 1789.

In 1811 the river froze hard, leaving only a narrow channel, so that people could walk on it from Battersea Bridge to Hungerford Stairs. But only three years later it froze hard again at the beginning of January after a week long fog. Tthe streets were piled high with snow, the ice on the river dirty and "lumpy" but firm enough on the 30th for seventy people to walk across from Queenhithe to the opposite bank. More people soon ventured onto the ice and by Monday Feb 1st the river was so solid from Blackfriars Bridge to some way below Three Crane Stairs that thousands were tempted onto it.

The new City Road

By Tuesday the whole area was a fair. The main ‘road’ was named the ‘City Road’ and went straight down the middle of the Thames rather than across. It was lined on both sides with about thirty stalls, decorated with streamers, flags amd "signs", set up for the sale of porter, spirits, and other drinks (unlicensed!) as well as for skittles, dancing, and a variety of games. The next day, Wednesday, was the same. In addition eight or ten printing-presses had been erected, the typographers setting up their type for the printing of cards and broadsides to commemorate the ‘great frost.’ One of the presses hoisted an orange-coloured flag, with ‘Orange Boven’ written on it in large letters. This referred to the restoration of the Stadtholder to the Government of Holland, it having been for several years subject to France.

A small sheep roasted on the ice drew quite a crowd - though they were charged sixpence to view it. The meat was afterwards sold at a shilling a slice as ‘Lapland mutton.’

It was still not wise to stray too far. A plumber called Davies tried to cross near Blackfriars Bridge carrying some lead and fell through the ice. Two young women were luckier when they fell in, being rescued just in time by Thames watermen.

"All the fun of the fair"

Yet on Thursday to most people the ice seemed to be a solid rock. The fair continued to grow and attract more visitors. There were swings, bookstalls, skittles, dancing-booths, merry-go-rounds, sliding-barges, just like Greenwich and Bartlemy Fairs. Friday the 4th brought even more, and scores of pedlars. Books and toys - anything - labelled with the words "bought on the Thames," found an easy market at a silly price.

The Thames watermen, far from being ruined made a huge profit by charging a toll of twopence or threepence to enter ‘Frost Fair;’ - and demanding a tip on leaving. Some were rumoured to have made up to £6 a day.

That afternoon, however, the ice cracked above London Bridge, a large piece carrying away a man and two boys through one of the arches. They had the good sense to lie flat and were rescued by some Billingsgate fishermen.

For the remainder of the week the fair remained in full swing, the ‘City Road’ between Blackfriars Bridge and London Bridge crowded till after nightfall.

Ominous signs of a thaw

On Saturday the 5th the wind turned to the south, with a slight fall of snow and sleet. Undeterred, thousands returned to the fair, and were tempted by donkey rides for a shilling. Later that day the crowd thinned as rain began to fall and the ice to crack, threatening stalls, donkeys, printing-presses, and all.

The thaw was rapid. In spite of warning from the watermen two young men went on the ice above Blackfriars Bridge and were carried away.

On Sunday morning, February 6th, at an early hour the tide began to flow and to break up the ice. On the Monday huge ice-floes washed to and fro with the tide, carrying off many barges and lighters from their moorings above the bridge so they were quite quickly wrecked and sank. In no time the ice was quite gone and the river flowing as usual though the frost lasted altogether till the 20th March.

So ended the last Frost Fair. London Bridge was rebuilt upstream in 1823 and the old one demolished in 1831. The new arches re-directed the flow of the river so that it was too swift to freeze. Vauxhall Bridge, the first cast-iron one, was built in 1816, Waterloo Bridge in 1817 named for the Battle of 1815, Southwark Bridge in 1819.

The whole area of the South Bank was transformed with the coming of the railways - yet more bridges - and the opening of Waterloo Station.