Queen Victoria gathers with her family around a decorated Christmas Tree.
An engraving published in the 1840s of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert created a craze for Christmas trees.

How exactly did Christmas in July start? Not just the Hallmark marathon, but the tradition as a whole. Is it something to do with the Alice in Wonderland un-birthday celebrations? Or is something else going on?

What I found was definitely interesting…and full of girl power.

Though the phrase “Christmas in July” can be traced back to an 1892 opera, the tradition as we know it started 85 years ago. At Keystone Camp in Brevard, North Carolina, the first Christmas in July was celebrated in 1933. Now, that may not sound very girl-powered, but get this: Keystone Camp is exclusively for girls ages 7 to 14. While the camp features a range of activities, this beloved tradition was started by the current owner’s great-great aunt and former camp owner, Florence Ellis, along with her friend, Miss Fannie Holt. 

At the behest of Florence and Fannie, the first Christmas in July was celebrated on July 24 and 25, 1933, complete with carolers, a Christmas Tree, Santa Claus, presents, and fake snow made of cotton. Former camper Blanche Pavlis was at the 1935 celebration just two years later: “When the curtains opened we found ourselves looking at a group of carolers standing by the Christmas Tree,” said camper Blanche Ulmer Pavlis of a 1935 celebration. “Then who should arrive but Santa Claus himself? Right out of the top of the shoe house 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.”

Over the next 40 years, Christmas in July evolved into a huge celebration: Campers would place laundry bags outside their cabins the night before and awake to find them filled with candy. Everyone, including staffers, participated in the gift exchange. Elves, reindeer, and Mrs. Claus began to accompany Old Saint Nick, who always wore his cozy red suit, despite 86-degree temperatures that are standard for North Carolina summers. And finally, the girls cooled off with a post-presents swim in the lake. The Keystone Camp tradition continues today.

But what about other Holiday traditions? Did girls play an integral role in some of our most well-known traditions? Turns out, they did!

Queen Victoria popularized the use of Christmas Trees in 1848. Through people have used evergreen boughs to decorate homes during winter for centuries, the tradition of Christmas trees was primarily in Germany. During her marriage to Prince Albert, Queen Victoria elected to decorate a Christmas tree as a nod to her husband’s German heritage. By 1900, 1 in 5 American families had also adopted the tradition.

During Hanukkah, one of the most popular dishes is cheese latkes (which I can confirm are delicious). According to Tori Avey, a Jewish food blogger, we have a female warrior to thank: “The custom of eating dairy foods for Hanukkah dates back to the Middle Ages, when the Book of Judith played an important role in the Hanukkah narrative. Judith was a celebrated Jewish heroine who saved her village from an invading Assyrian army. A beautiful widow, she plied the Assyrian army’s general Holofernes with wine and salty cheese. When the general passed out drunk, Judith beheaded him with his own sword. The Israelites launched a surprise attack on the leaderless Assyrian army and emerged victorious. In Judith’s honor, we eat dairy foods during Hanukkah.”

Celebrated on December 13, St. Lucia’s Day — also known as St. Lucy’s Day — honors the Christian martyr Lucy. Born around the year 283, Lucy was left unprotected when her father died at the age of five. As she matured, Lucy decided to dedicate her life to God and distribute her dowry to the poor. However, Lucy did not tell her mother this. Her mother, fearing for Lucy’s future and in failing health, arranged for Lucy to be married to a young, wealthy man. Before the marriage, her mother decided to take a pilgrimage to the site of another martyr’s death, that of Saint Agatha, who had died over 50 years before. When they visited the shrine, Saint Agatha came to Lucy in a dream and told her that because of her faith, her mother would be cured. The prophecy was true, and upon her mother regaining health, Lucy persuaded her to allow her to distribute their riches to the poor, stating “”…whatever you give away at death for the Lord’s sake you give because you cannot take it with you. Give now to the true Savior, while you are healthy, whatever you intended to give away at your death.” News of this reached Lucy’s fiancee, who denounced her to the governor. The governor ordered that Lucy burn a sacrifice to him, as Lucy’s wishes were in direct contradiction to the pagan beliefs of her people. When Lucy refused, the governor sentenced her to be defiled — what we would call raped — in a brothel. Christian tradition then states that when the guards came to take her away, they could not move her — even with a team of oxen! Unable to fulfill the sentence, the guards heaped wood around Lucy and set her on fire, but she did not burn. Seeing this, the guards stabbed her to death. Lucy was later canonized as a saint, and today is celebrated in the Swedish holiday of St. Lucia’s Day during which girls across Sweden are chosen to wear the crown of candles and visit hospitals and retirement homes, distributing ginger snap biscuits.

Another holiday, Kwanzaa, was established entirely by a woman! In 1966, Dr. Mualena Karenga established Kwanzaa as a Pan-African celebration of cultural history. Notably, on the sixth day, family and friends gather for a karamu feast to celebrate creativity and share their reflections on the past years. During the celebration, genders are considered equal.

Finally, perhaps the most well-known holiday symbol of all, Santa, might also have been a feminist. Legend has it that Santa’s real-life counterpart, Saint Nicholas, was a Christian bishop who lived during the 4th century in what is now Turkey. Though wealthy, Nicholas gave up his fortune to help the poor. Notably, one day, he dropped a sack of gold out his window to save a young girl from being bought into slavery. The gold landed in a stocking, and as word of the miracle spread, children began to hang stockings by their fireplaces in hopes of receiving a gift from Santa!

-Tiffany Rhoades
Program Developer
Girl Museum Inc.

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