Samantha Pepper thinks these Utah people are very, very strange.

It's July and it's sticky hot outside and these people are celebrating Christmas. With Santa and elves and a Christmas tree.The little girl from Spokane even gets a present and a purple sword and an orange dog made out of balloons.

For children like Samantha, who live in the Salt Lake Community Shelter and Resource Center, Christmas really does happen in July.

The Salt Lake Board of Realtors has sponsored Christmas in July at Utah's largest homeless shelter for ten years. This year, 65 children, newborns to 19 years of age, were invited to take a ride around the block with Santa and their parents in a horse-drawn carriage. They each received Christmas presents, complete with red and green wrap and a twinkling tree as a backdrop.

Santa Claus, also known as Tony Zucca, is a fixture at the Christmas in July party. While doing a magic trick Friday, he told the children to make sure to tell their moms and dads that they love them. To be kind. To be good.

Then, as all good Santas do, he did a belly warming "ho, ho, ho" and started seating children on his knee.

The party and the presents are fun, but shelter staff member Tamara Uzelac says, perhaps even more important, is that the children know people in the community really care about them.

Samantha's mom and dad agree. Elizabeth and Robert Thompson came to Salt Lake from their home in Spokane for Robert's surgery at the Veteran's Administration Hospital. Because of artery disease, he had to have his left leg amputated below the knee. The family can't afford other accommodations so their only choice was to live at the shelter. They hope to be in a transitional apartment by the end of the month.

"It's hard to be in the shelter," said Robert Thompson, who received a Purple Heart in Vietnam. "But the shelter does a lot for kids, and that's what's important."

Earlier in the day, Samantha, 5, asked her mom how the people were going to make the scene ready for a Christmas party. Even after she'd seen Santa, she was still a bit perplexed.

"I think it's weird Santa comes in July," Samantha said, clutching her new purple sword. " `Cuz there's no snow."