'This is the earliest we have ever had to cut the odds to single figures', said a spokesman for the bookmakers William Hill, which stands to lose pounds 100,000. 'The law of averages suggests we are long overdue for a white Christmas.'
The Meteorological Office was less optimistic: the likelihood of a white Christmas as defined by the bookmakers was 'remote', a spokesman said, since this demands that snow falls on the roof of the London Weather Centre - of which there is only a 1 in 16 chance. Since the Second World War, snow has only settled in London twice on Christmas Day: in 1970 and 1981.
Bill Foggitt, 80, from Yorkshire, has been recording weather temperatures for the Met Office as far back as he can remember. Before then, his father, uncle, grandfather and great-grandfather filed daily reports. He said yesterday that there was 'every chance' of a white Christmas this year, as 'we are overdue for one'.
'Weather comes in cycles. We have had a cold spell in October and now one in November. And it will carry on for another month at least. We have had lower than normal temperatures every month this year. I'll bet my last penny this Christmas will be white.'
The notion of a white Christmas was first introduced by Charles Dickens. His festive scenes of 'hospitality, merriment and open-heartedness' all had an essential ingredient: snow falling thickly outside. His joyous descriptions came from his childhood: as a boy he saw eight consecutive white Christmases.
Born in 1812, he was of the last generation to experience a mini ice age that had held Britain in its grip for some 400 years. At times the River Thames was completely frozen over and 'frost fairs' were held on the ice.
Mr Foggitt said: 'My great- grandfather was born in 1812. He remembered seeing an elephant walk across the Thames.'
By 1860, with colour printing becoming easier, the 20-year-old Christmas card started to feature snow-covered scenes. Festive nostalgia was born.
John Major should increase the special cold-weather payments for pensioners and families on benefits who risk freezing in the severe weather, Labour's spokesman on social security, Donald Dewar, said yesterday. 'The Prime Minister has said cold-weather payments will be adjusted to reflect increases in fuel costs. With snow already falling, this must be part of a comprehensive package to help millions who will freeze this winter.'