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The Surprising Origin of Christmas in July

The inspirational story of how this annual celebration started at a girl’s summer camp in North Carolina.

Keystone Campers celebrate Christmas in July in inspiring stories
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Growing up, I’d never heard of Christmas in July. My family always celebrated Christmas every December. There were the road trips down to North Carolina to visit family, cooking tasty Southern foods in my grandma’s kitchen, singing along to my all-time favorite Christmas carol, “Christmas Time is Here” from A Charlie Brown Christmas. I associated all things Christmas with the wintery months. Christmas in sweltering July didn’t make any sense to me. So, I decided to do some research. What was the origin of Christmas in July?

The term “Christmas in July” is believed to originate from a French opera written in 1892 called Werther. It then gained some popularity in 1940, with the release of the film Christmas in July, starring Dick Powell and Ellen Drew. Yet the idea of actually celebrating Christmas in July came from the South, in the very state where I spend my own Christmases: North Carolina.

Keystone campers celebrate Christmas in July origin
Campers celebrate Christmas in July in 1970 (photo courtesy Keystone)

Keystone Camp in Brevard, North Carolina, has been around since 1916. Nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains, the camp hosts young girls and teaches them everything from canoeing to horseback riding. In the summer of 1933, Keystone co-founder Miss Fannie Holt came up with the idea of having campers enjoy a little of the Christmas spirit during their stay.

“Fannie was known for always creating whimsy and magic at camp,” says Page Imes Lemel, the executive director of Keystone and a fourth-generation owner of the camp. Some of the whimsy Fannie made included Christmas traditions, both familiar and new. According to Lemel, campers would decorate a Christmas tree, host a secret Santa, and carol together. “Campers would put their laundry bag outside their cabin door and Santa would fill the bag with candy.”

Nowadays, Christmas in July is still very much celebrated at Keystone. Last year, Santa came down the camp’s big slide in a kayak. They now include a Hanukkah celebration, as well, with an electric menorah. Even if some of the activities change, the essence of the holiday season is always there. “You don’t mess with tradition!” says Lemel.

So I’d found the surprising origin of Christmas in July— so why keep celebrating it? For Keystone campers and staff, and people all over the world, Christmas in July is a chance for us to feel the Christmas spirit— that sense of wonder, togetherness, and giving— in a month that maybe otherwise wouldn’t have any of those things. I remembered my favorite Christmas carol and the words I sang to myself every December, and realized I had my answer as to why Christmas in July is important. Christmas time is here, families drawing near. Oh, that we could always see such spirit through the year. 

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