Listening to yet another Christmas song last week, I wondered about the mismatch between the weather we sing about – snow – and that which we experience: unusually warm temperatures and rain, at least this year. I assumed that the songs had fit in better at one time with Christmas weather.
“Jingle Bells” was written in the autumn of 1857, though not in relation to Christmas, but to Thanksgiving. Although I couldn’t find any weather data on Thanksgiving 1857, James Lord Pierpont, who wrote “Jingle Bells”, would perhaps have expected a cold winter based on temperatures earlier in the year. On January 18 and 19, “the Cold Storm” hit large parts of the United States, covering central Virginia to southeastern Massachusetts in one to two feet of snow. Just a few days later, even colder weather and more snow arrived in the northeastern US, with temperatures as low as -40 degrees F/C in northern New York and New England. For Pierpont and his contemporaries, then, “dashing through the snow” would have been a normal and expected occurrence in winter.
I expected similar stories surrounding “Let it snow!” and “White Christmas”. Yet both songs, from the 1940s, were written and composed in California. What’s more, the immediate context of both songs is the warm California weather.
“Let it snow!” was written in July 1945, during a California heatwave. The story goes that the writer, Sammy Cahn, and composer, Jule Styne, were longing for cooler weather so much that they imagined a snow storm. This fantasy might have its source in the cold weather at the beginning of 1945: according to the US Weather Bureau, “The year 1945 was notable for the severe cold weather, record snowfall, and continuous snow cover in the eastern portion of the country until February”. The average temperature for 1945 as a whole was 53 degrees F (11.6 C). Interestingly, it was also the wettest year on record.
1941, the year in which “White Christmas” was written, was another normal year in terms of temperature. Nonetheless, the Weather Bureau notes that “the temperatures of 1941 followed the general trend since the beginning of the century, with a tendency to above-normal warmth very marked in all seasons of the year” – which sounds familiar today. The relatively warmest month was December – diminishing the chance of a white Christmas for many areas.
I had expected to find that at least to a large extent, popular songs about Christmas weather correspond to the actual weather at the time and place they were written. What I discovered instead is a trend of increasingly warm and wet weather in the US – and other parts of the world.
The difference between Christmas weather and Christmas songs also made me think about how environmental humanities scholars are calling for new narratives of nature that somehow capture life in the Anthropocene. In this case, we might need new Christmas narratives to represent warmer, wetter and more unpredictable Christmas weather.
I realize that there are plenty of countries in which Christmas songs have always seemed exotic. Suitable to the weather and time of year, an Australian version of “Jingle Bells” mentions “Christmas in Australia on a scorching summer’s day” and “Christmas Day the Aussie way, by the barbecue”.
In the meantime, many of us in the Northern hemisphere might have to get used to including the original first lines of “White Christmas” again:
The sun is shining, the grass is green,
The orange and palm trees sway.
There’s never been such a day
in Beverly Hills, L.A.
But it’s December the twenty-fourth,—
And I am longing to be up North—