12/24/2006 07:18 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Whither Winter Wonderland?

Christmas is almost by definition an exercise in nostalgia. Carols, a half-dozen endlessly-repeated 40-year-old animated TV specials and those Lexus and diamond ads all summon up longing for the snowy holidays of yore. And if you're over 15 and live almost anywhere in America's northern climes, odds are you remember snow falling at Christmastime, and remember it with dewy affection.

These are small pleasures. Christmas is celebrated joyously in many climates the world over, of course. And the content of nostalgia changes as we grow older, as one generation supplants the next, and as popular culture churns. (I can't listen to Let it Snow anymore without thinking of "Die Hard.")

So I wonder if it's frivolous to ask what it means for Christmas when, in all probability, we're heading into an era in which snow will be increasingly scarce. Can it be - no more Winter Wonderlands?

If Jack Frost is already abandoning the polar ice caps, you can bet Christmas in the warmer latitudes will be included in the bargain. Global changes are afoot - warming, species loss, rising seas - and by most accounts they are accelerating. To most people this still seems remote, abstract, a problem too easy to ignore or kick down the road. And it's hard to detect such a huge signal in the fluctuations of a single year, let alone one more green Christmas. But it has been getting warmer, and this winter has been particularly warm so far. So warm that retailers can"t move their winter coats, alpine ski slopes are rocky, and even Moscow is merely cool, far from its normal deep freeze.

For many, Hurricane Katrina was a kind of cultural dividing line between the abstractness of global change and the reality. It's happening. More is coming - batten down the hatches. But if we want to put the brakes on, or at least begin to adapt, we have to think beyond the cliché of climate change precipitating cataclysmic events. We should also think about its effects on the texture of our culture - from our corny pop culture nuggets to our religious observances.

As the atmosphere warms up, how will that alter the experience of Christmas and its nostalgic glow, not to mention our the conception of the seasons? (Of course, this has a practical upside - less snow to shovel, as well as fewer traffic accidents, lost school days, high heating bills, et al. As my 7-year-old son was lamenting the absence of snow this year, I was secretly rejoicing. But of course we'd also get sweltering summers, rising seas, and other problems as part of the package.)

Many Christmas traditions, of course, evolved out of pagan rituals marking the winter solstice - the darkest, coldest, time of the year in Europe. They translated rather well to much of North America. Whether answering to Father Christmas or Santa Claus, he still needed the sleigh, boots and fur coat.

So, what will it mean when nobody remembers an actual white Christmas? The cultural memory will grow hazier and hazier - more localized to northern, mountainous areas, restricted to period dramas, living on in song and story - but, increasingly part of history, lost to collective sensibility and experience. So, while I don't know that a shared wistfulness for white Christmases is the best reason to fight global warming, it has its virtues.