In the summer of 1933, Fannie Holt, the co-founder of North Carolina’s Keystone Camp, invented an American tradition. Her invention may not have been wholly original — Yellowstone National Park, of all places, might lay a similar claim to this particular idea — but it stuck, becoming a summer tradition at Keystone and soon spreading throughout the country.
Holt’s brainchild was one of the first known celebrations of Christmas in July, a concept that has taken on a special meaning for some families in summer 2021. After a year in which many people didn’t attend in-person holiday festivities with their families, celebrating Christmas in the balmy summer is just one way to let old family traditions live on.
“My family does Christmas Eve at their house every year and has a big party. We all get together, and it’s super fun,” says Daniel Conway, whose family canceled their Christmas party in 2020. “My dad was so bummed about it. My family spends a lot of time with each other. But then he said, ‘You know what? We’re gonna do Christmas in June. We’ll throw a big barbecue and have the Christmas tree up.’ And it was super fun. We had a Santa there!”
For much of the 20th century, however, Christmas in July had very little to do with family gatherings. In post-World War II America, the idea was probably best known as the theme of retail sales, which became a summertime boon for beleaguered retailers gutting it out till another holiday season. It offered a chance to clear out merchandise by appealing to shoppers who might want to prep for the year-end holidays or who simply want to survive the hot temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere by dreaming of lazy snowflakes.
In recent years, Christmas in July, at least as a retail event, has been subsumed by Amazon’s annual Prime Day. Today, at least in name, Christmas in July has the air of a nostalgic relic. But even before its consumerist heyday, the origins of Christmas in July were more whimsical and heartfelt, which brings us right back to a North Carolina camp trying to make the girls who attended it feel a little bit less homesick. The Christmas in July tradition continues to thrive at Keystone Camp, where the celebration has evolved to also honor several year-end holidays, including Hanukkah and Kwanzaa.
So as we approach July 24 and 25, which will mark the 89th anniversary of that first summer camp celebration, it’s worth looking at the life and death and stubborn persistence of Christmas in July — both as a fun idea for a party and as a marketing juggernaut.
How a summer camp for girls invented Christmas in July — probably
It’s worth noting right off the bat that having Christmas when it’s hot outside is normal for an entire hemisphere. In Australia, there are a whole bunch of Christmas songs about celebrating in the warm summer sun. Tim Minchin’s “White Wine in the Sun,” for instance, is all about a tradition of, well, drinking white wine in the sun every year when the holiday rolls around. So if we Northern Hemisphere folks are looking for summer holiday traditions to adapt, Australia might have us covered.
Still, you hear “Christmas in July” and probably think of a more ... American-centric view of the Christmas holiday, minus chilly weather. It’s all about Santa Claus hanging out on the beach in shades or snowmen melting in the summer sun. Rankin-Bass, the animation studio behind many hit holiday TV specials, united its two most famous characters for 1979’s Rudolph and Frosty’s Christmas in July, its holiday-themed spin on The Avengers, and that special captures the appeal of the pseudo-holiday. It’s as much about the American Independence Day as it is Christmas, and it offers a weirdly patriotic view of a holiday that is celebrated all over the world.
The earliest reference to something Christmas in July-ish stems from a historical tale of dubious factuality. Yellowstone National Park lore has it that at some point in the first few decades of the 20th century, an unexpected blizzard stranded travelers at one of the park’s inns. Snowed in, the group decided to celebrate Christmas. What else were they going to do? The lack of available details about this supposed occurrence and the fact that there’s no record of a summer snowfall at Yellowstone large enough to trap people indoors in the early 20th century suggest strongly that it’s a legend, not something that really happened.
Yellowstone has, however, celebrated some sort of “Christmas in summer” event at least since the late 1940s and possibly even before that. Yellowstone researcher Leslie Quinn, in a 2008 article in Yellowstone Science, traced rumors of some sort of “summer Christmas” celebration in Yellowstone to as early as the 1930s, but the first actual reference to something like Christmas in July occurs in 1947 — when an event with the incredibly racist name of “Savage Days” was held on July 25. In the early ’50s, the word “Days” was replaced with “Christmas,” and the event floated to August.
A likely explanation for the change is that Yellowstone’s visitor season was still basically from June through August in the 1950s. By moving the holiday to August 25, it could also serve as an “end of the season” celebration, a fine time for exchanging presents and wishing good cheer to friends new and old.
Keystone Camp’s claim to the Christmas in July throne is better documented. A short item in the Washington Post in November 1933 titled “Summer Santa Fun, Says Camp Head” outlines how Fannie Holt presented Christmas in July to the girls at her camp. “There’s no reason for having Christmas in July except that it’s fun! And the girls loved it,” the article quotes Holt as saying.
Some of Holt’s campers were from the Washington, DC, area, which merited the item in the Post, so if you’re looking for “the first” Christmas in July, that’s as close as you’re going to get without a time machine. And if you were going to officially name an inventor of Christmas in July, you could do worse than Fannie Holt.
“Miss Fannie was quite a character, very whimsical, silly. She loved to dress up and anything fun and fantastical. So many of our names here at the camp date all the way back to Miss Fannie because of the whimsy that she brought to life,” says Page Ives Lemel, the fourth-generation head of Keystone Camp. “Most camps have junior or senior years, that kind of thing. Here at Keystone, our girls are elves, pixies, and dryads. And I have to give all the credit for that to Miss Fannie.”
Keystone’s celebration has continued to the present, though its elaborateness has waxed and waned over the years. Lemel has ancient photos of a giant Christmas tree adorning the camp’s pavilion, as well as Santa’s many visits. She remembers that even her father, the camp director when she was a girl, used to go and sit on Santa’s lap.
The celebration has shifted in recent years. Campers no longer hold a Secret Santa because preparing a gift for another camper ate up an entire week of arts and crafts. The desire to respect other religious traditions, as well as just to celebrate other holidays, has led to a broadening beyond Christmas to Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, as well as to other special days throughout the camp season — dressing up for a summer Halloween, or having a watermelon hunt in lieu of an Easter egg hunt.
Nonetheless: Some form of summer Christmas has become a Keystone tradition, just like it’s become a Yellowstone tradition.
“The traditions here mean a lot to us. We spend time each week reflecting on our camp history at Sunday night campfire. I talk about the history of Keystone — great stories from the past and the ways we’ve evolved over time,” Lemel says. “The girls are very, very connected to the history, and I think that helps them take more pride in the program because of this long connection to the last 105 years. These girls are doing the same things that were done 50 years ago, 60 years ago, 90 years ago. It’s very meaningful for them to see they’re tied to something larger than themselves.”
Though it’s impossible to say with absolute certainty where Christmas in July was born, there were no major media mentions of the idea (at least that we know of) before Keystone in 1933. After that, it gained enough popularity that a 1940 movie — one that has nothing to do with Christmas! — was called Christmas in July, thereby cementing the term in the public consciousness.
That’s when retail got involved.
The rise and fall and reincarnation of the Christmas in July sale
The date and whereabouts of the very first “Christmas in July” sale are unknown, but by the mid-20th century, such sales had become ubiquitous throughout the US. The aim was often to draw in customers who might start prepping for the holiday season by purchasing gifts or even decorations, and it served as a necessary mid-year tentpole for retailers who were too far removed from holiday seasons on either side.
But in the 21st century, the Christmas in July label has slowly but surely slid out of favor among American retailers. QVC still holds a giant annual sale event under the banner, but increasingly, mid-summer promotions that might have been billed as “Christmas in July” as recently as 20 years ago have been rebranded, as Lisa Lacy pointed out for Adweek in 2018. Sometimes they’ve been reimagined as “Black Friday in July,” but just as often, the Christmas in July concept has been swallowed up by other seasonal sales.
July is a good month for retailers to have sales more generally, says Katherine Cullen, the senior director for industry and consumer insights at the National Retail Federation. It’s the year’s midpoint, more or less, and it doesn’t have any massive, global holidays to compete with for oxygen. (Independence Day is a big deal in the US, but it’s not a global holiday, and it also doesn’t have a strong association with shopping.)
July also blends together with the back-to-school shopping season, and in a world where customers are trying to spread their budgets a bit more evenly across the year, Cullen said, the month becomes a great time for shoppers to buy products for both the near future and the further-out future. But that also means that “Christmas in July” or even “Black Friday in July” is less necessary as a branding opportunity.
“It seems like the summer sales season is stretching out — in particular around back-to-school, but the summer sales are stretching out a little further,” Cullen says. “Back-to-school consumers are starting to shop a little earlier than they may have three years ago. And they’re stretching that shopping out. People don’t like to be rushed when making purchases. They like the ability to spread out their budgets. We’re seeing [with back-to-school] what we see with the winter holidays, where it feels like Black Friday comes earlier and earlier every year.”
Christmas in July has been further subsumed by digital sale events that are essentially pure celebrations of consumerism. The most obvious of these is Amazon’s Prime Day, which was first held July 15, 2015. Prime Day hit in July until 2020, when it was moved to October, due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The event arrived in late June this year, almost exactly six months from Christmas, but both Walmart and Target threw giant sales events. The more these events become normalized, the less summer sales are going to have a connection to anything. Just buy some stuff for yourself, will you?
With that said, if there’s ever going to be a year where Christmas in July is actually apt, it’s 2021 — when a lot of families are having literal Christmases in July.
Christmas in July takes on a new meaning when you weren’t able to have Christmas in December
“It was really emotional. Things may have been a little bit more open [in Atlanta] than they were up in New York, but we still weren’t doing anything. We were really taking it seriously,” says Conway of his family’s decision to cancel their Christmas Eve party in 2020. Conway works in real estate in Atlanta; he and his husband moved from New York to Georgia early in the Covid-19 pandemic, and Conway was unable to see his family for Christmas, especially because his 90-something grandmother was at high risk.
So his parents decided to do something different: They hosted a summer Christmas on June 26, 2021, one day after June 25, the halfway point between one Christmas and another. They opened their house on Long Island to family and friends. More than 50 people came by in the end. Everybody ate, drank, and was merry. Someone playing Santa Claus even showed up, to Conway’s surprise. (Seriously, when he talks about it with me, he seems like a little kid who just saw the real Santa.)
“It felt a little weird because it was hot. We’re in the Northern Hemisphere, so we obviously expect Christmas to be cold,” Conway says. “But it had a surprisingly Christmassy feel. We were playing “All I Want for Christmas Is You” by Mariah Carey, and Santa was dancing. It was just a really nice experience, and everybody there had a really nice time and thought it was a creative and exciting thing to do.”
Families gather outside of the year-end holidays all the time, of course. But Christmas and the other winter holidays carry with them an expectant charge of big gatherings and Uncle John wearing you out with his latest story that never ends. Those plans were thwarted for many in 2020, thanks to the pandemic. (Then again, given how cases surged throughout the US after the holidays, maybe those plans weren’t thwarted for enough of us.)
Several people I spoke to for this story were planning summer holiday celebrations for 2021. After being vaccinated, they and their families were gathering in the sweltering heat of June, July, or August to hang out in someone’s backyard and celebrate the holidays with a cookout, or maybe even some Australian-style white wine in the sun. (When I asked Conway for advice on holding a summer Christmas, he said to make sure you have enough alcohol and enough ice.)
Will summer Christmas become a new thing in the Northern Hemisphere? Probably not. Christmas in July will likely remain the province of national parks and summer camps and sales with names that slowly detach themselves from Christmas with each passing year. But this year, summer Christmas just might bring families who’ve spent over a year apart back together. Heck, Conway and his husband got married during the pandemic, and only a couple of family members were able to attend, so this summer Christmas was doubly special.
If you haven’t seen those you love in a while, and if you’re looking for an excuse to get together, why not plan to stock plenty of ice to keep everybody’s drinks cold and have a summer Christmas? It might keep your spirits warm while the rest of you is covered in sweat.
Just take one last piece of advice from Conway: “The Santa part is a must. But keep it a surprise! I didn’t expect it. I was shocked when Santa came out. I had no idea.”