Why White Christmases in New York Really Are Just Dreams

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Irving Berlin grew up in New York. So what was he talking about when he wrote, years later, of a snow-covered Christmas “just like the ones I used to know?" Have years of climate change and development worn away the luster that Manhattan used to have every December 25th?

The protagonist of the song, loosely based on Berlin himself, has long since moved to California. But his nostalgic look back suggests snow-covered streets were a regular feature of his youth:

I'm dreaming of a white Christmas,
just like the ones I used to know
Where the treetops glisten and children listen
to hear sleigh bells in the snow

David Robinson, the New Jersey state climatologist and a professor at Rutgers University, took a look at the historical snow coverage data and doubts that Berlin experienced white Christmases any more frequently than we do today: about once in every five years.

“New York City has not seen any major changes in snowfall totals over the last century, century and a half,” he said.

The average winter temperature has increased over the past several decades, from about 33.7 degrees Farenheit (between 1951-1980) to 35.5 degrees (between 1981-2010), according to Robinson's calculations. But he said that warming has not translated into lower snow coverage, largely because snowfall is such a sporadic event that it is impossible to detect any trends.

“If you’re like me and grew up in the 1960s in the New York metropolitan area, you’re thinking that there’s less snow these days,” he said.

That is because between 1959 and 1966, there were five White Christmases. But that is just a statistical aberration.

"It was just a particularly snowy decade.”

Data of snow coverage in Central Park only go back to 1912, when Berlin was 24. Based on that data, Robinson said there is an 18 percent chance of having a white Christmas in any given year. The total snow fall for Decembers before that, for the years between 1893-1912, do not appear to be unusually extreme.

Jody Rosen, the pop music critic for New York magazine and author of the book, White Christmas: Story of an American Song, said Berlin likely relied more on the American mythology of the ideal Christmas than his memory in writing the song.

“I’m reminded of everything from Currier and Ives prints of the 19th century, their engravings, their classic images of a Victorian, New Englandy-Christmas, and also a little bit scenes of Dickens, and also from songs, like ‘Jingle Bells,’” Rosen said.

Though Jewish, Berlin would visit his Irish neighbors to look at their Christmas tree.

“The spectacle of Christmas dazzled him, the kind of celebration of gift-giving commerce, Santa Claus, the excitement of Christmas season,” Rosen said. “Children in general like it but it held a special allure for those who stood a little bit outside it as a Jewish immigrant boy would have.”