Never has a color combination been more strongly associated with a specific event or holiday than green and red. White and black can be the a chessboard, the representations of good and evil, or the colorings of a Dalmatian- but green and red? That’s Christmas. Only Christmas. But, why are red and green Christmas colors?
Why are Red and Green Christmas Colors?
How did these colors came to symbolize one of Christianity’s most important yearly events? Department stores are decorated with green wreaths and red Christmas ornaments, Santa’s elves Task a child to draw something related to the Yuletide season, and the first crayons that they will grab are red and green. This fact has been so ingrained since childhood, that most of us didn’t even have the chance to wonder why it is so.
History of Christmas Colors
When exploring why are red and green Christmas colors, University of Cambridge’s Dr. Spike Bucklow might have an answer. Dr. Bucklow, who is a chemist by training, often lends his skill in the field of art restoration. One of the projects that he worked on in the past was to repair and restore cathedral rood screens, most of which were built during the 14th and 16th centuries.
For those who are unfamiliar with rood screens, these objects were often used to separate the chancel (which contains the altar) from the nave, the central part of a church building where the congregation is usually accommodated (and which is also used for secular activities from time to time). So in a way, these highly decorated screens separate the world of the holy from the lay people and the world of the secular.
While restoring the screens, Dr. Bucklow noticed one recurring pattern- the screens have a consistent color of scheme of green and red! While the saints painted on them might be made from different colors, the overall color scheme is so apparent and varies little from screen to screen that Dr. Bucklow thought that there must be a deeper meaning to it.
He thinks that red and green symbolizes the very different worlds of the spatial and the spiritual, and the end of one year (red) as it moves on to the next (green). This coincides thoroughly with the time of year when Christmas is celebrated, and the function of the rood screens themselves.
But other scholars have different theories. One theory speculates that the red and green color combination harkens back to the 1300s, when churches are in the habit of holding “miracle plays” during Christmas season for its mostly illiterate flock. One play that was often shown during this time is the story of Adam and Eve; as such, an apple tree was often required to be included on the set. However, as apple trees are barren during the winter, most churches used pine trees instead (which has a deep, bright green color) and fastened apples to them. As time went by, people replicated this kind of practice, hence the red-green color combination was born… along with the practice of setting up Christmas trees.
Meaning of the Color Red
Other theories dealt with how colors are perceived in Christian culture and tradition. For example, red is often associated with the forbidden fruit that Adam and Eve ate in Paradise (so thus, it’s a symbol of man’s flawed humanity). It can also represented the blood of Jesus Christ, which was spilt when he was crucified and died on the Cross.
Meaning of the Color Green
The use of green, on the other hand, might be a tradition that was carried over from pagan cultures. Mistletoe, ivy, and holly have been used for thousands of years as decorations during the cold winter. Egyptians were said to display palm branches on their houses during the cold season, while Romans exchanged evergreen branches for good luck. In most cultures, green also symbolizes new life- very fitting for the end of a year.
Meaning of the Color Gold
Gold is also another color associated with Christmas, albeit to a lesser degree than green and red. First, it was one of the gifts that the Three Wise Men gave to the baby Jesus along with frankincense and myrrh. It also symbolizes sunlight, fire, and prosperity.
Christmas has a rich tradition. While the spiritual ones are apparent, these superficial trappings like the use of Christmas trees and green-and-red are almost lost to history. Unfortunately, we are unable to fully answer “why are red and green Christmas colors?” as we can only speculate as to what their true origins are.