Large-scale atmospheric patterns are examined on orbital timescales using a climate model which explicitly resolves the atmosphere–ocean–sea ice dynamics. It is shown that, in contrast to boreal summer where the climate mainly follows the local radiative forcing, the boreal winter climate is strongly determined by modulation of circulation modes linked to the Arctic Oscillation/North Atlantic Oscillation (AO/NAO) and the Northern/Southern Annular Modes. We find that during a positive phase of the AO/NAO the convection in the tropical Pacific is below normal. The related atmospheric circulation provides an atmospheric bridge for the precessional forcing inducing a non-uniform temperature anomalies with large amplitudes over the continents. We argue that this is important for mechanisms responsible for multimillennial climate variability and glacial inception.