Changes in winter and spring temperatures have been widely used to explain the diverse responses of spring phenology to climate change. However, our understanding of their respective roles remain incomplete. Using >300,000 in situ observations of leaf unfolding date (LUD) in Europe, we show that the advancement of LUD since 1950 is due both to accelerated spring thermal accumulation and changes in winter chilling which explain 61% and 39% of the LUD shifts, respectively. Winter warming did not substantially retard the releasing of bud dormancy, but increased the thermal requirement to reach leaf unfolding. The increase of thermal requirement and decreased efficiency of spring warming on accelerating thermal accumulation partly explained the temporally (1950s-2010s) decreasing response of LUD to warming. Our study stresses the need to better assess the antagonistic and heterogeneous effects of winter and spring warming on leaf phenology, which is key to projection of future vegetation-climate feedbacks.