WEST JEFFERSON — With crowds congregating up and down Backstreet, downtown West Jefferson bustled with Christmas cheer during the 33rd annual Christmas in July Festival July 5 and 6.

After an opening ceremony and concert the afternoon of Friday, July 5, some 5,000 festivalgoers turned out to celebrate Ashe County’s nation-leading Fraser fir industry and the Christmas season a few months early Saturday, July 6, according to Wesley Barker, a member of the festival’s organizing committee.

“It rained some, kind of put a damper on things Friday, and it rained just a little bit on Saturday, but it cleared up and I think the crowds were good,” Barker said. “I think it was maybe a little less than last year, but it was still a very good turnout.”

For the festival, Backstreet and surrounding streets were lined with two live music stages, Ashe County Farmers Market vendors and handmade crafts sellers, community groups, candied and fried festival food chefs, bouncy houses, Santa and Mrs. Claus, street performers and other assorted interests and oddities.

Ashe County Farmers Market vendors reported increased sales compared to last year’s Christmas in July Festival, Barker said.

In the heat of a High Country summer Saturday afternoon, smoke filled the air as Civil War gray coats bellowed cannon-fire at a Yankee encampment across West Jefferson Park while spectators cheered from beneath the lawn’s shady old oak trees. The Civil War reenactors were popular throughout the Christmas in July festival as usual, Barker said.

Festivalgoers elected Fraser fir tree #5, grown at Gardner Tree Farms, as the best in show Christmas Tree for the 2019 People’s Choice Christmas tree competition — see a separate story in this week’s Ashe Post & Times for more on the competition.

“The festival formed to promote the Ashe County Christmas tree industry,” Barker said. “The first festival was in 1987, and it’s always had the focus of promoting the tree industry — each year it seems like we become more and more popular for Christmas trees across the nation.”

According to the inaugural Christmas in July Festival official program and yearbook dated July 3-5, 1987, there were 650 Ashe County growers who harvested 335,000 Christmas trees worth $6 million in 1986.

For comparison, the Ashe County Christmas tree industry was valued at $95 million in 2018, up $5 million from the year before, according to the Ashe County Cooperative Extension.

“Ashe County produces more Christmas trees than any other county in the United States,” the 2019 Ashe County Farmland Preservation Plan said. “Approximately three million trees are harvested each year.”

Planning for the 34rd annual Christmas in July Festival will begin in January 2020, Barker said. Expanding the festival grounds to once again include Jefferson Avenue in downtown West Jefferson has been discussed and will likely be a topic of discussion for next year’s Christmas in July Festival, according to Barker.

“I wouldn’t ever rule it out,” Barker said. “It’s really a logistical thing — that’s a discussion for the town, the committee and the merchants.”

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