December–February (DJF) extreme rainfall was analysed at 347 European stations for the period 1958–2000. Two indices of extreme rainfall were examined: the maximum number of consecutive dry days (CDD); and the number of days above the 1961–90 90th percentile of wet-day amounts (R90N). A principal component analysis of CDD found six components that accounted for 52.4% of the total variance. Six components of DJF R90N were also retained that accounted for 39.1% of the total variance. The second component of R90N has a very significant trend and the factor loadings closely resemble the observed linear trend in this index, suggesting that the analysis has isolated the mode of variability causing the trend as a separate component. The principal components of the indices were correlated with surface and upper-air observations over the North Atlantic. The best correlations were generally found to be with sea-level pressure (SLP) observations. A separate canonical correlation analysis of each of the two indices with SLP revealed several coupled modes of variability. The North Atlantic oscillation (NAO) was isolated as the first canonical pattern for R90N. For CDD the first two canonical coefficients of CDD were significantly correlated with the NAO index. Generally, the canonical coefficients with the highest correlations with the NAO had the most significant trends, suggesting that the observed trend in the NAO has strongly contributed to the observed trends in the indices. Two other important canonical patterns were isolated: a pattern of anomalous mean SLP (MSLP) centred over the North Sea, which seems to be related to local sea-surface temperature over this region; and a dipole-like pattern of MSLP with poles over the eastern Mediterranean and the central North Atlantic. Repeating the canonical correlation analysis with two other indices of extreme rainfall, the 90th percentile of wet day amounts and the maximum 10 day rainfall total, gives very similar coupled patterns.