The modern image of Christmas is locked in as a season covered in snow, ice and frosty images of evergreens.
Ironically, the actual setting for Christmas should take place in the dry desert heat. Christ, after all, was not born on December 25th. Historians usually place His birth in the Spring.
The seasonality of St. Nicholas bears explaining as well. Historically Nicholas of Myra was a year-round figure, placed in not-so-frosty like places in the Middle East. How he came to wear red is easily explained but how he took to sleighs and snowmen is a bit more complicated.
But even more complex is the advent of Christmas in July, an odd seasonal celebration of what is typically associated with cold during the worst heat of the year. Where did the idea of Christmas in July come from?
Like too many things Christmas it is a concept buried in myth and covered in money.
The idea floats around that Christmas in July is actually a sentimental observance by people living in southern climes whose seasons run opposite of those living in the north. Their winter falls during the summer months of their northern neighbors. The modern Christmas for them is more of a season of surfing Santas, Christmas lights on palm trees and days of celebration at the beach. It is supposed that during their season of cold and ice — in July — they drag out the Christmas trees and feast upon traditional Christmas fare while sitting by the glow of Christmas candles and yule logs.
It is a romantic and sentimental notion. But it is absolutely false.
While it is no doubt true that some isolated instances of yuletide-like decorating may take place in southern hemisphere winter there is no evidence of it being a societal norm or tradition.
Christmas in July, it appears, is more about merchandising than making merry.
History records efforts on the part of retailers in America dating back to the 1880s to sell Christmas products in July. Some point to greed and the “crass commercialism” of Christmas as the cause of this but in reality the technology and rural nature of most living in America at the time are the most likely cause.
It wasn’t as if every frontier town had a Target on the corner. In fact, during this post-Victorian era of retailing most purchased not only their holiday goods but their every day provisions by way of catalogs and through the mail.
So any retailer hoping to move Christmas products had to get the word out in July, at the latest.
The products sold then differ little from products sold today. Christmas cards, ornaments and decorations such as wooden advent calendars were pictured in catalogs even long before widespread use of color printing. For many people living beyond major population centers such as New York or Chicago it was the only way to get holiday themed merchandise.
In the play/movie The Music Man a production is made of “the Wells Fargo wagon”, coming to town to bring the instruments that would make up the band. This musical is set in the early 1900s and it does a great job of showcasing the attitudes and anticipation of products delivered on a special order basis to small town America. It was simply a big deal because beyond general dry goods and groceries there was little special about what was offered on a retail basis. Christmas in any form was as specialized as fur coats, tea cups and clock parts.
So even receiving such paper wrapped products in the mail or by way of special freight deliveries became an event. Perhaps that is why Christmas as an element of summer bled into musical and dramatic culture as stories, books, songs and entire plays were crafted that carried a “Christmas-anytime-it’s-not-Christmas” theme. Wikipedia makes note of Christmas in July operas written in the late 19th century and MyMerryChristmas.com talks of Christmas in July from Vaudeville. All of these seasonal tips of the hat to Christmas were driven from how people were forced to buy Christmas out of season during decades when that was the only way to buy it.
These days Christmas in July has become a season in itself. Hallmark has for decades made a tradition of releasing new Christmas ornament designs in July and cable shopping channels devote entire days to Christmas showcasing of new products. Christmas in July is frequently an event at theme parks, recreation areas and during end-of-summer gatherings as both a way to have fun and to mark the beginning of back to school. Christmas in July is also a time when conventions for Christmas collectors are held and when Santa portrayers around the world gather for their events.
Christmas in July is a purely secular sub-season, devoid of religious significance or times of worship.