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Dreaming of a White Christmas in N.M.

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Spoiler alert: discussion of the chances of a 2012 New Mexico white Christmas ahead. If you don’t want to risk a broken heart, stop reading now.

Our fondness for a “white Christmas” seems to be one of those curious yet richly rewarding examples of American self-invention, for which we apparently have songwriter Irving Berlin to thank.

“The longing for Christmas snowfall, now keenly felt everywhere from New Hampshire to New Guinea,” music critic Jody Rosen wrote, “seems to have originated with Berlin’s song.”

Rosen, author of the delightful book “White Christmas: The Story of An American Song,” might have added New Mexico to the list.

Written by a Russian Jewish immigrant in celebration of that most secularized of Christian holidays, “White Christmas” became a hit during World War II as a nation craved normalcy. Then it improbably endured, shaping our nostalgia for the Christmas we “used to know” by inventing it.

It’s easy to imagine why New Mexicans would feel a special twinge this year. Drought grips our state, our mountains unusually barren of snow as the calendar ticks down toward Dec. 25. But it wasn’t drought that had me pathetically watching the weather radar Saturday night, peering out the back window, then past the lighted Christmas tree to look out the front window, hunting evidence of actual snow to decorate the holiday of my American fantasy.

Around 10 p.m. I saw it, a few flakes drifting down through the streetlight. It was so warm they melted when they hit the ground, but still, Christmas season snow!

For New Mexico, the current numbers are grim. In the watershed that feeds the Rio Chama, the series of storms that culminated in Saturday night’s blessing more than doubled the snowpack — from 26 percent of average for this time of year to 57 percent.

At the federal government’s Cumbres Trestle snow measurement station on the New Mexico-Colorado border, 2 feet of snow fell in the past week, but snowpack there is still far below where it should be. Federal water managers have warned there could be shortages next year for some New Mexico water agencies that rely on water from the headwaters of the San Juan River.

“The reality is that we’re still well below where we should be,” Kerry Jones of the National Weather Service’s Albuquerque office said during the weekly weather briefing Monday.

With the North American storm track finally dropping down across New Mexico after deserting us for most of the fall, Jones and his colleagues have their eyes on another storm headed New Mexico’s way Wednesday — lots of wind and snow in the high country.

But who cares about a white Dec. 19, right? Some snow would be nice to help the drought, but what we’re really looking for is a white Christmas.

In Albuquerque, according to the folks at the weather service who have been tracking this for years, there’s:

♦ About a one in eight chance historically of seeing snowflakes falling on Dec. 25.

♦ One in 14 Albuquerque Christmases has had measurable snowfall. The last good Christmas snowfall in the Albuquerque area, according to the weather service, came in 2000, though if you live in the foothills your white Christmas odds go up.

Ah, but past statistics faded into irrelevance Monday morning when I called up the latest runs from the weather service’s Global Forecast System model. There, in all its silicon computer simulation glory was a snowstorm, blowing across northern and central New Mexico sometime late Christmas Eve. Maybe Christmas Day?

When I called Jones, he was cautious. A week out is at the edge of the weather models’ storm prediction capability. They can often see a storm coming this far out, but the details — a little farther north or south, a little earlier or later — can make a big difference in terms of who gets a white Christmas and who doesn’t.

That said, the weather service’s GFS model says we’ve got a good chance at some white in New Mexico somewhere around Christmas, especially in the northern part of the state. The European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts, which also does long-range forecasts, is in rough agreement. “Odds are looking good for snow across the area,” Jones said.

Given the uncertainty, it’s perhaps worth remembering the first verse of Berlin’s White Christmas — the “lost verse” that is often left out in our recreations of hearth and home.

In it, the song’s narrator is stuck “in Beverly Hills LA,” where “the orange and palm trees sway” — stuck in a place with no snow, and “longing to be up north.”

New Mexico is on a climate/cultural border between the snowless “Beverly Hills LA” and the Connecticut farm in the 1942 movie “Holiday Inn,” starring Bing Crosby, which introduced Berlin’s dreamy cinematic vision of snow at Christmastime. Unless you live in the high country, a white Christmas is better imagined than experienced.

But this year, it looks like we have a shot.

UpFront is a daily front-page opinion column. Comment directly to John Fleck at 505-823-3916 or jfleck@abqjournal.com. Go to www.ABQjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.
— This article appeared on page A4 of the Albuquerque Journal



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