The single flake of snow that brought a white Christmas windfall

CA single flake of snow falling on the London Weather Centre dealt a blow to the bookies who were already reeling from shelling out pounds 92,000 to punters who had laid money on the Spice Girls topping the Yuletide charts.

The arrival of the solitary flake on a rooftop in London's Clerkenwell was all that was needed to mark yesterday as Britain's first white Christmas in 20 years. Both Ladbrokes and William Hill will today start paying out around pounds 100,000 to thousands of punters cashing in on the windfall. The only question is whether the winners realise their good fortune.

"I hope they won't be throwing their slips away," said Simon Clare, a spokesman for Ladbrokes. "They'll be looking out of their window and thinking: `No way', when in fact they will be clutching what could be a fairly valuable Christmas bonus.

"There's not a sign of snow on the ground, but it definitely is a white Christmas. People have been asking: `Does it have to stick?' `Does it have to be in certain places?' But the fact is that at least one flake of snow on the London Weather Centre roof equals a white Christmas. By all accounts there wasn't much more."

It is only the third time that Ladbrokes has lost the seasonal flutter since it started the "fun Christmas bet" in 1964. And this year it took more money for the bet than in any previous year. The odds started at 12-1 last January, fell to 10-1 at the beginning of December and then to 2-1 on Christmas Eve.

Graham Sharpe, spokesman for William Hill, described the snow fall and Spice Girls' No 1 as a: "double whammy". The biggest winner in the capital was James Sexton, a public relations consultant who gave 1,300 clients Christmas presents of a pounds 1 snow wager.

The day was marked by record supermarket spending, British Telecom's busiest day of the year - and Heathrow's quietest.

In Northern Ireland, Christmas revellers set a world record for a single day's trading by Marks & Spencer store. More than 30,000 people piled into M&S at Sprucefield, outside Lisburn, Co Antrim, on Monday, spending almost pounds 1m.

The bumper total marks the largest food takings for any M&S on a single day anywhere in its world-wide chain. Andrew Keating, manager of the store, said people started queuing before 7am, when the store opened, and were still arriving when it closed - 15 hours later.

Christmas Day was BT's busiest day of the year - and yesterday's dialling looked set to beat last year's total of nine million hours' worth of calls around the world, and in particular to Australia, Canada, the US, New Zealand, the Republic of Ireland and the Caribbean.

BT was expecting an increase of 10 per cent on the 47,229,687 calls made last year on the 25th when 33 million calls were local, 13 million regional and just over a million international. The average call length was 12 minutes, compared to the usual 2-to-5 minutes of a working day.

Meanwhile, Heathrow airport was experiencing its quietest day of the year. Staff enjoyed a break as a mere 41,000 passengers passed through the arrival and departure gates.