Recently, I saw a post in a Facebook group I am a part of. It was posted by an Australian who was frustrated that, despite it being summer in the Southern Hemisphere, Christmas still carries a winter theme there. This reminded me of when I lived in Abilene, Texas. Unlike my last Christmas, which was in Idaho, Abilene is neither in the mountains nor in a state that borders Canada. I enjoyed four Christmases in Abilene, but the weather on Christmas varied. The warmest I experienced there was 73 (that was in 2005), the record warmest Christmas recorded at Abilene Regional Airport was in 1971, when the temperature peaked at 76.
Fast forward another day and my mind wandered to wonder if it was possible to have a white Christmas in Bethlehem, and I was surprised to find that not only is it possible, but apparently it has snowed a lot there (by my definition) in the past. There are several challenges to determine this, but I’ll try my best.
Before I get any further, I want to make some things clear. First, I want to state outright that this is not a scientific paper trying to prove a white Christmas in Bethlehem during the time of Jesus. Some assumptions will be made, but that’s about it. Second, I acknowledge that there is debate among religious scholars as well as historians as to what day Christ was actually born on. For the purposes of this blog, we’re looking specifically at December 25. Third, I’ve never been there myself and very rarely do I track the weather in that region. I am by no means an expert in their climate by any stretch of the imagination.
Anyway, there are a handful of challenges when one is wanting to see if Bethlehem had ever had a white Christmas, the biggest of which is probably the fact that the Israel Meteorological Service (IMS) doesn’t operate a weather station in Bethlehem. The Palestinian Meteorological Service (PALMET) does, but their website is extremely basic and finding that data is a pain. Because of a lack of accessible data from PALMET, we’ll be looking at the IMS’s station in Jerusalem.
Bethlehem is located in a mountainous region in the West Bank. Its elevation is 2,543 feet above sea level, which is 128 feet higher than the IMS station about six miles away in Jerusalem. This isn’t a massive difference, but anyone in a region with a lot of terrain knows that 100 feet can be the difference between an inch of snow and a cold rain. Bethlehem is located at a latitude of 31.7° North, which conveniently enough is actually just about 40 miles or so south of where I used to live – Abilene, Texas (I didn’t know that until I was gathering information for this blog, so that’s kinda cool).
The city is only a short distance from both the Dead Sea to the east and the Mediterranian Sea to the west. Like is mentioned above, today Bethlehem is part of the West Bank. It has been occupied by Palestine since the withdrawal of Israeli troops in the 1990s. When Christ was born, the entire region was under Roman control, though Rome did grant them some level of autonomy.
According to the IMS, weather information began to be taken at the Jerusalem weather station we are looking at in 1949. It has snowed in Jerusalem in the past, and with the six-mile difference between there and Bethlehem, it isn’t hard to imagine that it has snowed there as well. The question is, of course, can it snow on Christmas?
With Bethlehem and Jerusalem being north of the equator, Christmas falls in winter. That’s a step in the right direction. When looking at the data taken by the IMS we immediately see that the record low ever recorded in December is 32.4°. That’s excruciatingly close to being below freezing without actually meeting the mark. Remember, though, that Jerusalem and Bethlehem have some decent terrain.
Also by looking at the data, we see that December, January, and February are the wettest period of year in Jerusalem. On average, 64% of the annual precipitation seen in Jerusalem falls in these three months.
On December 13, 2013, slushy snow accumulated in Jerusalem’s city center. The IMS station only recorded a low of 33.6°, but as the picture on the right (or above if you’re on your phone) shows, that’s cold enough for snow to coat parts of the metropolitan area. With the weather station being over 100 feet below Bethlehem, it could have easily snowed there. Of course, that’s assuming that being six miles south didn’t make a difference in that storm system. In case you’re wondering, Christmas 2013 brought a high of 56° and a low of 45°.
In 1950, Israel’s biggest snowstorm dropped four inches of snow clear down to Tel Aviv in February, which is on the Mediterranian Sea and is significantly lower in elevation than both Jerusalem and Bethlehem. In January 1992, nearly 20 inches of snow fell in Jerusalem. It is clear that snow can, and has, fallen in Jerusalem in December, January, and February. With 20 inches of snow in Jerusalem, I can guarantee you there was quite a bit of snow on the ground in Bethlehem.
So, it is entirely possible for Bethlehem to have a white Christmas, but has it actually had one? To answer this, I turned to WeatherUnderground, which has daily weather data for our favorite Jerusalem weather station dating back to 2004 (with some gaps). Yes, I know 2004 isn’t that long ago but its the best I’ve got (side note – if you know a better way to get daily weather data for Jerusalem, mash this link to tell me because I only have a disappointingly small amount of data). So far as I can tell, there weren’t any white Christmases during this time frame.
What about this year? Looks like Christmas Day in Bethlehem will be pleasant. The IMS says they will see isolated showers Christmas Eve with partly cloudy skies Christmas Day. Highs look to be in the mid-50s.
So, it’s entirely possible for Bethlehem to see a white Christmas. Now, to wander deep into the land of assumptions – I’m sure that Bethlehem has seen snow on December 25 in the past as it has been around since at least 1,400 B.C. Furthermore, as an excellent chart from XKCD demonstrates, the average temperature of the Earth was about 1°C (1.8°F) cooler at the time of Jesus than it is today.
This could have had an effect on precipitation that fell in Israel at the time, but one would have to run some serious weather models to know that. Honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Savior saw a snowy December 25, but I also wouldn’t be surprised if He didn’t. White Christmases likely happen, but they’re probably spaced out pretty far apart. The simple truth is that in a land that doesn’t receive snow every year, the odds of it landing on one particular day (like December 25) are pretty slim.
I hope you and your family have a Merry Christmas, and if it’s not Christmas you’re celebrating, I hope whatever you celebrate is joyful.