Today, Christmas in July is an occasion to enjoy a taste of the Christmas season in the summertime—or in the wintertime, if you live in the Southern Hemisphere. It’s also an occasion for Yule-themed shopping sprees and a flurry of out-of-season Christmas movies on the cable-TV networks. But did you ever wonder about the origins of Christmas in July? There are various theories about that, but it may well be that Christmas in July as we know it is the legacy of a special show business tradition of the early 20th century.
Before the era of the Internet, TV, radio, even before the movies, live performances were the most prevalent medium of professional entertainment in America, and an evening or matinee at the local vaudeville theater was a family treat. Vaudeville shows were the original variety shows, and “variety” was the word. A single show might offer any or all of acrobats, animal acts, singers, dancers, actors, comedians, magicians, or a man who could play the violin with a bulldog suspended from the crook of his elbow.
But if vaudeville was a wonderland for audiences, it was a daily grind for the performers. The most prestigious vaudeville houses staged two shows a day, while performers in “small time” theaters often played three shows a day, or even five, including Sundays and holidays. Actors would spend from a few days to a week at one theater before moving on to the next theater in the circuit. As vaudeville veteran Fred Allen, later a popular radio comedian, recalled, “Most of the vaudeville actors spent their Christmas days on trains, in dingy dressing rooms, or in drab hotels.”
A group of performers in Long Island, New York decided to reclaim Christmas for these hardworking vaudevillians.
Freeport was known by 1914 as a popular summertime “actors’ colony.” In those days before air conditioning, many theaters closed during the summer months, and performers tended to spend their layoff time together in communities of their own, often near a lake or the seashore. Headed by actor Victor Moore, the Freeport contingent founded a club they called the Long Island Good Hearted Thespians Society, soon abbreviated to LIGHTS. Around 1915, the LIGHTS came up with the bright idea (no pun intended) of hosting an annual Christmas party in July at their clubhouse overlooking Great South Bay, to allow the vaudeville performers to enjoy the Christmas celebrations they missed while working on the road.
As Fred Allen recalled, “[T]hough the temperature be in the 90s, the Lights’ Christmas tree was decorated and lighted, Santa Claus was dressed in his heavy suit with the ermine trimmings, presents were placed under the tree, and the members and their children arrived in their furs, mittens and earflaps, some even clattering into the club on snowshoes.” Even the performing ponies and dogs could expect a handful of sugar cubes or a dog collar in their stockings. Some years the thespians also staged a July Christmas parade through the streets of Freeport, complete with clowns, acrobats, and, one year, elephants.
The annual observance of Christmas in July became a cherished tradition for these nomadic performers, so much so than when June rolled around and summer heat began to close the theaters, actors would part with a cheery “See you at Christmas in July!”
By 1930, however, vaudeville was on its last legs, overtaken by sound movies and radio, and the LIGHTS clubhouse in Freeport was sold, bringing an end to the July ritual beloved by a generation of performers.
As you celebrate at your next Christmas in July party, consider raising a toast to these intrepid entertainers who gave up their December Christmases to entertain families all across America. They were the pioneers of our modern Christmas in July.