Once upon a time, when Europe and North America were in the grips of the Little Ice Age, the frozen Thames played host to festive frost fairs, during which hot toddy and amusement sellers set up fire-warmed tents on the river.
These days though, a mere dusting of snow on December 25 is a rare occurrence. Yes, we had an official white Christmas last year, but that was only thanks to the Met Office’s generous definition (“one snowflake to be observed falling in the 24 hours of December 25 somewhere in the UK”).
Things are looking fairly optimistic for 2022. Meteorologist Jim Dale of British Weather Services, the man charged with verifying white Christmas bets for several bookies, thinks the odds are currently 5/1 in London rising to 3/1 in Edinburgh but he cautions that nothing is guaranteed. “If you’re going to gamble and risk it, you’ve got to go to the higher latitudes: the Pennines, the northern Welsh mountains, Aviemore.”
Head out of the UK and the options begin to multiply, from European ski resorts to Canada’s frozen north. If you’re looking for a real white Christmas, the kind eulogised in festive songs and films but rarely experienced in real life, here are the places worth exploring…
The best bets in the UK
For the best chance of British snow, you need to head upwards. The SnowRoads scenic route twirls along the highest public roads in the country on a winding trail through Scotland’s Cairngorms National Park and reveals glimpses of the white stuff almost year-round (although parts of it shut in particularly bad weather).
The mountains form part of the Grampians, one of Dale’s tips for a white 2022 Christmas due to the anticipated easterly wind. “It’s closer to the North Sea [than the Highlands] so you get cold and precipitation,” he says. About a quarter of the way along the SnowRoads, the ski resort of The Lecht plans to have powder on its nursery slope on the big day regardless of whether it falls from the sky, thanks to a 2020 crowd-funding campaign that financed two snow cannons.
There’s no in-resort accommodation though, and the nearest hotels (in the tiny town of Tomintoul) are booked up. However, just 10 miles away in the storybook village of Ballater, the cosy Balmoral Arms still had some availability at the time of writing – and, in 2021, a smattering of flakes fell in the area during the early hours of December 25.
At the end of November last year, customers at Britain’s highest pub, the Tan Hill Inn, watched a film, munched on a buffet, enjoyed a quiz night – and bedded down in sleeping bags on the floor for three nights straight. Though the welcome was as warm as ever at this 17th-century inn, Storm Arwen’s freezing blizzards had brought seven feet of snow and trapped more than 60 drinkers (and an Oasis tribute band) inside.
So far this year, it’s been comparatively warm but Dale thinks that’s set to change and snow is currently forecast next week – good news for White Christmas-seekers. The Tan Hill Inn is shut on Christmas Day but there are plenty of other places to stay nearby with rooms available over the festive season, including grand Simonstone Hall at the heart of the region in nearby Hawes. Its festive package includes a candlelit Christmas Eve dinner, Christmas lunch with all the trimmings and a Boxing day brunch, Champagne reception and gala supper.
Europe's snow-sure options
At the edge of the vast Arlberg ski area, the twin villages of Warth and Schröcken claim to see the most snow of all the resorts in Europe (an average of 10.5 metres per year). There’s already a healthy covering, although the ski season doesn’t officially start until December 2.
The profusion of snow makes these tiny villages (both sleepy antidotes to the showy apres-ski scene of nearby St Anton) all the more magical, while wholesome festive activities include a Christmas market featuring a fancy dress parade from local kids as well as a lantern hike through the surrounding forest. There was plenty of in-resort availability at the time of writing, including rooms at the four-star Hotel Steffisalp, right on the slopes.
In parts of Finnish Lapland, snow arrives in November and doesn’t thaw until May, resulting in a Narnia-like combo of white-frosted forest and pink-lit skies that stay put for half the year (some lucky visitors also glimpse the Northern Lights).
There are more reindeer than people in this sparsely-populated region, but it doesn’t feel like it in the tourist-town of Rovaniemi, home to Santa Claus Village and a cluster of accommodation options (Tui still has availability for four-night breaks here over the Christmas period). For more tranquil celebrations, head north to the empty region of Inari, where the Wilderness Hotel has space in ski lodge-style rooms overlooking the forest and excursions into the frosted countryside by husky and snowmobile.
Les Deux Alpes, France
Ski resorts often have their best snow in February, so for a decent blanket on December 25 it pays to head high towards a glacier. The one at Les Deux Alpes is 3,600m up which makes it skiable year-round while, further down the mountain, the village often has snow too.
As one of the most family-friendly mountain resorts around, it also puts on an enthusiastic festive display – including an appearance by the main man himself on Christmas Day when he parades through the streets on his sleigh after a quick ski down the slopes. Sno.co.uk still has plenty of availability on week-long trips to the resort, leaving on December 24.
According to Weather Spark, December 25 is one of the snowiest days of the year in this Unesco-listed city, with an average of 1.25cm. It may not be much but it’s just the icing on the cake for this place, thanks to a profusion of impressive light shows and three relatively uncrowded Christmas markets. The glitziest, ‘Christmas Town’, takes place in Cathedral Square under the myriad lights of a towering tree.
Meanwhile, there’s an International Christmas Charity Bazaar, assembled by diplomatic communities from around the world with profits donated to good causes. Or, for a cool yule, try the alternative market in a converted warehouse, filled with local makers and street food vendors. Travel Republic has a selection of city breaks in Vilnius on offer over Christmas.
It’s a balmy 42C in the baths of Sukayu Onsen, around an hour’s drive from Aomori City in northernmost Honshu. But the frost from outside still creeps in to weave a mist above the water. This is allegedly the snowiest inhabited place on Earth, with almost 18 metres of the stuff settling every year. Stay at the onsen and you’re cocooned from the cold in traditional tatami rooms, though you can also amble across the pristine powder on its back country tours.
Many local tourists, however, prefer to see it all from the nearby Hakkoda Ropeway, a cable car that reveals battalions of ‘snow monsters’ (drift-covered trees) marching across the surrounding mountains. Ten minutes away, the three-star Hakkoda Hotel has Christmas availability through hotels.com.
The snow comes down hard on the Mount Baker ski area, about two hours north of Seattle. There’s more than 16m of the stuff per season there, making it the snowiest resort in the USA. However, scarily territorial snowboarders, a lack of on-mountain lodging and the regular threat of white-outs mean it doesn’t guarantee festive fun. For that, you need to head south to Aspen where the temperature and the welcome is warmer.
At the time of writing, 15 inches of snow was expected in the next seven days at this cutesy resort favoured by A-list Americans while temperatures hovered around zero. A roster of wintry activities adds to the excitement, with three ice rinks, gingerbread-house decorating, carol concerts, sleigh rides and more. Availability is scarce in the resort but Iglu Ski had rooms at the four-star Limelight Hotel at the time of writing.
The Yukon, Canada
Back in 1947, little Snag, Canada recorded the coldest temperature ever experienced in North America – a frostbite-inducing -62.8C. Resident Gordon Toole recalled his breath freezing in mid-air before falling to the ground as white powder. In short, he made his own snow.
There’s no need to go that far (either in terms of snow-making or travel: Snag is only accessible by plane, foot or extremely long and tedious drive and there’s really not much there). As temperatures across the vast Yukon region hover around -22C, instead make for Dawson City, north of Snag and once the epicentre of the Klondike Gold Rush.
It’s a place to wrap up and explore the frozen rivers of Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in Traditional Territory by snowmobile before heading back into the centre for one of the Downtown Hotel’s signature Sourtoe cocktails, invented when a prohibition era outlaw had his own frostbitten toe amputated by his brother and popped into a jar of bourbon. The cocktail still contains one of the hotel’s small selection of mummified toes (which must be handed back after drinking).
Among the other eccentric Christmas offerings in town, an annual boat parade during which residents dress their vessels in twinkling lights and outsized inflatables and drive them through the snowy streets. The Downtown Hotel had space over Christmas (as well as a few toes) at the time of writing.