Slow recovery and the origin of the traditional Christmas scene

The world began to recover during the 18th century, but the recovery was hesitant. The winter of 1708-9 was mild in Ireland and Scotland, but the sea froze along the Flemish coast and people crossed the Baltic on foot. In 1716 the Thames froze so solidly that the tide raised the ice by 13 feet (4 m) without disturbing the fair being held on it. The 1720s and 1730s, on the other hand, brought some of the mildest winters of the century, although the summer of 1725 was the coolest ever recorded. Cold winters returned in the 1740s. The average temperature over the whole of 1740 in England was 44°F (6.8°C), the coldest ever recorded.

There were warm spells, but every so often the icy weather returned. Christmas is usually associated with snow. Christmas cards often depict snow-covered landscapes and contrast the cold outdoors with the warmth of a log fire seen through a window. This is the "traditional" Christmas scene, although nowadays a white Christmas is extremely rare in Britain. We owe the image mainly to Charles Dickens (1812-70). His early childhood, from 1812 until 1819, coincided with the coldest winters England had seen since the late 17 th century. Christmases really were white, and that is how Dickens remembered them and how he described them in his hugely popular Christmas stories. This also explains why Christmas cards so often show people dressed in the styles of the early 19th century and traveling by stagecoach.

The glacial retreat began around 1860 in the Alps and Scandinavia, and it has continued at a fairly steady rate since then. That is when the recovery from the Little Ice Age became firmly established. There were still cold winters, with substantial amounts of ice on the Thames in 1894-95, and in 1924 people could walk across the narrow strait from Malmo, Sweden, to Copenhagen, Denmark, and people even drove cars on the ice. The winter of 1962-63 was as cold as some of those when there were frost fairs, but the industrial heating water discharged into the Thames, combined with the changes in the engineered water flow, prevented the river from freezing. It is unlikely to freeze in winter again.

By the early 20th century the recovery was more evident. The 1880s and 1890s had been extremely cold, but temperatures rose fairly steadily from about 1900 until 1940. There was a slight cooling from 1940 until the late 1970s, but the Little Ice Age had ended and before long people began worrying about a new phenomenon—the "greenhouse effect."

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