The Colour of Yule

I am looking out of my window at snow. The snow can be disruptive to our day-to-day plans, but who can deny the beauty of the landscape carpeted in white, trees sprinkled with glitter, the icy softness drifting to the ground. Long-range weather forecasts suggest a possibility of snow in the run up to Christmas.

That gave me pause for thought. (Simple things often do.)

I look forward to Yule in the same way as many in the UK look forward to Christmas. How come I never think of Yule as being a snowy occasion? People dream of a white Christmas but I have never wished for a white solstice. What makes this stranger is that they are only a few days apart. This year Yule is on 21st December, just four days before Christmas.

So what exactly is going on here? I sought the answers to some questions.

Why is the coldest part of the year yet to come after the winter solstice?  The shortest day of the year leads to lengthening days where the amount of light received each day slowly increases. Why doesn’t it get warmer?

The meteorological winter lasts from 1st December to the end of February. The astrological winter depends of the date of the winter solstice, so starts roughly three weeks later. At solstice the Northern hemisphere is at its furthest point from the sun. In London the period of daylight lasts only seven hours and 49 minutes while further north in Edinburgh, it is just six hours 57 minutes long.

The hours of daylight may be getting longer from the solstice, but there is what is known as seasonal lag that means there is a delay in the earth’s warming. Our planet is mostly covered in water – 71%. Water takes longer to warm up than land. Air and land temperatures are influenced by seas and rivers. The result of this delay is that we feel the consequences of the shortest day a while after it happens.

January, February and March are overall the snowiest months, rather than December. February has on average 5.6 days of snow, January 5.3 and March 4.2. In comparison December has on average just 3.9 days of snow.

There can of course be snow at other times. Bizarrely on 2nd June 1975 snow showers forced the abandonment of several cricket matches across the UK.

So how likely is it that we get a white festive period? Well. This depends on what you think of as a snowy Christmas. The Met Office’s definition of a white Christmas probably doesn’t tally with what the person on the Clapham omnibus thinks. One snowflake observed falling in the 24 hours of 25th December somewhere in the UK earns that official title of a white Christmas. This means that 38 of the last 54 Christmases have been confirmed as ‘white’.

However, this does not mean by any stretch of the imagination that there are mounds of snow covering the fields. There has only been widespread snow on the ground four times in the last 51 years.

This means that in reality the images that we are starting to see springing up everywhere of children in Santa hats building snowmen and tobogganing down slippery slopes are inaccurate and highly unlikely to take place, at least not at Christmas. So why do we associate the two? And still the question – why don’t we associate this activity with Yule?

I have seen it suggested that the seeds of belief in snow at Christmas have been planted by Charles Dickens in his works such as The Pickwick Papers and A Christmas Carol. He was born in 1812 during the coldest decade since the 1600s. Britain, in the period 1550 to 1850 was in the ‘Little Ice Age’. The River Thames froze in 1814 when there was a frost fair with tents set up on the ice and an elephant led across the river. His childhood memories must have influenced his later writing.

And of course others have continued those images. Film makers love the white stuff – think of White Christmas. And many of us will have heard by now the song I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas, played in shopping centres across the country.

All this however has still not answered my question of why do I not think of Yule as being a snow covered occasion. I suspect the answer lies even further back in time.

In 1582 Pope Gregory XIII proclaimed a new calendar – known as the Gregorian Calendar – to replace the Julian calendar. The learned folk at the time became aware that the way of keeping dates did not quite match with what was actually happening due to the earth’s inconsiderate habit of taking 365 and a bit days on its journey round the sun. The bit apparently is very important. Calendar dates were falling out of sync with the seasons by almost one day per century, and it was having a noticeable effect. To correct the problem, it was essential to ‘restart’ the system by ‘losing’ a few days on the year of introduction.

Understandably many people were not happy with this and not all countries adopted the new calendar at the same time. Britain did not take the Gregorian calendar on board till 1752. At this stage we had to erase 11 days. This would have meant that Christmas day fell 11 days earlier than usual, so no longer in the heady days of snowfall of mid-winter. At least I think that’s what it means. It’s a bit of a mind blowing concept.

Arthur Gaunt, Shields Daily News, said that after 1752 snow became less and less common not as a result of any big change in the weather, but because 11 days were dropped from the calendar. ‘Until that change, the day which is now December 25 fell later, arriving on the day now marked on our calendars as January 5, and severe weather is much more likely to be experienced on that date than in the last week of December.’ (He explains it far more elegantly than me.)

So that answers my question. Yule has always been green whichever calendar – Julian or Gregorian – is used. Christmas used to be white before the calendar change. The image of the white Christmas appears to be a long-term memory which has been perpetuated over the years.

Of course, I may well be wrong. Please feel free to point out any flaws or faulty logic or, indeed, alternative suggestions.

Written by Portland Jones, Disability Liaison for Pagan Federation Midlands