Arts & Culture

A Christmas (in July) Story

Eighty-five years ago, one North Carolina girls’ camp heralded summer’s first Noel

Photo: Courtesy of Keystone Camp

Long before the phrase “Christmas in July” meant shopping specials and holiday reruns on TV, a sleepaway camp called Keystone in the mountains outside Asheville, North Carolina, launched a summer holiday celebration for its campers.

Photo: Courtesy of Keystone Camp

Miss Fannie Holt and her dog LuLu.

Fannie Holt, one of the women who founded Keystone Camp in Brevard in 1916, dreamed up a “Christmas in July” celebration for July 24 and 25, 1933. Theories abound as to why she began it—perhaps to remedy how much camp friends missed each other during the winter holidays, speculates current Keystone camp director Page Ives Lemel. Or maybe to introduce the “secret Santa” concept into craft time so the girls would make each other gifts. “Miss Fannie was an interesting character who was very creative,” Lemel says.

The Washington Post covered the inaugural 1933 Christmas in July at Keystone, making it the first recorded event of its kind, complete with caroling, gifts, and a trimmed tree. “There were different colored lights, which made the tree quite bright and gay,” said camper Blanche Ulmer Pavlis, who described the fete in Keystone’s records. “Then who should arrive but Santa Claus himself…to the tune of ‘Jingle Bells.’ After saying ‘Hello’ to everyone he began giving out the presents. Then the carolers began throwing cotton imitation snow. And those who have never seen snow got quite a thrill.”

Photo: Courtesy of Keystone Camp

A Christmas in July celebration at Keystone Camp in 1937.

Girls attended Keystone from as far away as Florida, which is perhaps one reason the tradition spread, Lemel says. For decades after that first summertime Noel, Keystone continued the celebration, with Santa arriving in the back of a pickup truck and handing out presents. These days, the camp throws a more general holiday party in late July, but girls always sing carols, make crafts, and snack on milk and cookies (a longstanding nightly ritual).

Photo: Courtesy of Keystone Camp

A drawing by a Keystone camper commemorating 1936’s Christmas in July.

The idea of a summer yuletide gained national attention with the 1940 film “Christmas in July,” and just four years later, the U.S. Post Office promoted an early Christmas card mailing campaign for soldiers during World War II. By the 1950s, stores across the country were using “Christmas in July” as a theme for advertisements and summer sales. These days, the Hallmark Channel schedules a whole week of Christmas movies in July.

In the Tarheel State, the town of West Jefferson hosts an annual Christmas in July Festival, which honors the region’s evergreen tree farms and features live music and Santa sightings—and it’s just a few hours north of where it all began, Keystone Camp.