The True Story of How Christmas in July Became a Quirky Cause for Celebration
From a summer camp party to a national trend, people are bringing a little holiday joy to the dog days of summer – and you can too
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This article was originally published in Vegetarian Times.
It’s a 90 degree July afternoon in Ohio and you’re dancing to holiday music amid a crowd sporting red and green bikinis. Someone’s fake Santa beard just went flying as they took a belly flop in the pool. The margaritas are salty, the sunscreen is abundant, and the smell of chlorine mixes with the fragrance of pine and sugar cookies. This is Christmas in July.
This quirky tradition is celebrated across the U.S. where friends dust off their Christmas decorations, fire up the barbecue, pull on their swim trunks and boogie to the jolliest of carols. A search on Spotify turns up hundreds of Christmas in July playlists with thousands of streams. In 2021, views of TikTok videos soundtracked with Mariah Carey’s ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You’ ticked up by around 10 percent relative to other non-holiday-season months.
Hallmark participates annually with a selection of holiday movies released in July for the occasion and TV shopping channel QVC has a special sale. In Bristol, Virginia, The Bridge Home No Kill Animal Rescue is hosting a month-long Christmas in July event complete with a giving tree where people can pick gifts to give to animals in need. In Taylor County, Kentucky, a Christmas in July toy drive gave back to victims of the 2021 tornado that wreaked havoc on the community. Runners 4 Wellness hosts an annual Christmas in July-themed race in Isle, Illinois. This year’s race will take place July 23.
But there are rowdier traditions as well. Christmas in July theme parties complete with buffets of festive fare – and plenty of day drinking.
“The most memorable Christmas in July party I went to had ornaments hung around the beer pong table and tinsel adorning the walls,” says Caitlyn Blair, 26, of California. “It was held outside, so the temperature was great.”
The dress code for Blair’s celebration called for either an ugly Christmas sweater or something green or red. Almost everyone indulged in a glass of jingle juice, a cocktail concocted with fresh cranberries, vodka, ginger beer, and a cinnamon stick.
“We had Christmas music playing the whole time,” Blair says. “It’s just a great way to get everyone in good spirits and do something a little out of the box. Plus, I can’t wait until December to sing Mariah Carey’s ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You.’ Who wants to wait that long!?”
Origins of a Modern Tradition
It’s believed that the first celebration of Christmas in July took place 84 years ago on July 25, 1933 at an all-girls summer camp in Brevard, North Carolina. Fannie Holt, one of the founders of Keystone Camp – and a woman remembered fondly for her whimsy and creativity – had the idea of a Christmas-themed celebration in the midst of summer.
“Fannie was quite the lady,” current Keystone Camp Director Page Ives Lemel says. “She was always thinking up something new. Most camps, for example, have juniors, middlers, and seniors, but we have elves, pixies, and dryads.”
According to camp history, Christmas in July came about as an occasion to exchange gifts, sing carols, and mark the end of the summer season in an unconventional way. As generations of campers grew up enjoying the annual tradition, many never realized it was a Keystone creation.
“I didn’t even know Keystone was where the tradition originated until I was camp director myself,” Ives Lemel says. “It was only when a visitor pulled up a Wikipedia page to show me that Christmas in July started here.”
Lemel fondly recalls her own memories of Christmas in July; Santa and Mrs. Claus would pull up in a big red truck tossing candy to all the campers who greeted them. Camp counselors would dress in reindeer and elf costumes and would gather everyone into the lodge for secret Santa.
“Every camper would pull a name out of a hat and spend the week before Christmas in July in the arts and crafts corner making a gift,” Lemel says. “You’d leave little notes in their mailbox giving hints to your identity. The big reveal was always on Sunday afternoon.”
Because the camp was much smaller then, individual names would be called out and campers would sit on Santa’s lap to receive their gift. Today, the tradition has evolved to incorporate Hanukkah and Kwanza.
The dining hall will be decorated with red and green chains, and a decorated pine sapling decorated. Holiday cuisine includes fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, green beans, and rolls. And, of course, sugar cookies and hot chocolate.
A few years into Keystone’s celebrations, the 1940 film Christmas in July, with popular Hollywood figures Dick Powell and Ellen Drew, brought national attention to the concept.
Ohio event planner Susan Hershey of Glory Event & Decor has planned many Christmas in July parties.
“There’s obviously always the theme of the holidays,” Hershey says. “But every party has a different look and feel. For example, one group wanted a winter wonderland, so we covered the space with fake snow, spun snowflakes, and had a cool-toned dessert spread.”
In another instance, Hershey recalls, a party was centered around a beachy Santa Claus, complete with sunglasses and a funky swimsuit.
“It’s really whatever you want it to be,” Hershey says. “Christmas looks differently to everyone, especially in July.”
There’s no one way to host a Christmas in July Party, but there are certainly a few musts if you intend on having a holly jolly time. You’re going to need a playlist of your favorite holiday tunes, of course. And then it’s on to the food and drink.
“Generally I suggest finger food,” Hershey says. “For Christmas in July parties, I’ve done cheese towers in the shape of snowmen, vegetable plates that look like wreaths, and ham sliders with cranberry sauce.” Plant-based eaters might swap in veggie ham or Tofurky for those sliders.
Beverages don’t have to be holiday-themed, but it’s always good to have at least one party-oriented drink special, such as a cranberry cocktail or eggnog punch.
Decorations can be as minimal or extravagant as you want. Many people put up a nontraditional tree and string summer items along it, rather than the typical tinsel and ornaments. Create a festive atmosphere by passing out Santa hats and goofy holiday sunglasses, making your guests themselves part of the decor.
“Any way you look at it,” Hershey says. “I’ve never seen a dull Christmas in July party.”