I was listening to the radio recently and heard it said that green and red are colours synonymous with Christmas. Whenever there is mention of colour and its origins my art historian ears prick up. So, this casual sentence that was part of a bigger discussion got me thinking. I realised I don’t know why green and red are the colours of Christmas so I decided to find out. Well, what a revelation!
I was sure it was the Victorians who took the romance of Christmas and ran with it in their distinctive ostentatious manner. I soon discovered that the colour attribution goes much further back in time and it has a much more cultural significance than I assumed.
The use of holly with its red berries and evergreen mistletoe to brighten the bleak mid winter, dates back to pre Christian Europe. Holly was used to decorate feasts to celebrate the Winter Solstice. In the middle ages, paradise plays were preformed on Christmas Eve. The trees of the garden of Eden were represented by pine trees adorned with red apples.
The Victorians aren’t entirely blameless either. Art historical research suggests that their restoration of Rood screens* which used the colours prolifically inspired the attribution to Christmas.
*screens which separated the nave from the chancel in medieval churches
While the use of red and green at Christmas stretches right back in time it has a much more recent history also. In the 1930s Coca Cola hired an artist, Haddon Sundblom, to design their Christmas campaign and he embraces the post Victorian depiction of Santa Clause dressed in red robes and creates a big and jolly man for advertising that would reach a huge audience across the United States and ultimately beyond.
It’s so interesting to see how colours can bear such significance and have both a conscious and subconscious effect. Red and green are colours we see independently all year round but when side by side we automatically think Christmas. Colour, much like music, has such a powerful way of helping us recall memories and indulge in nostalgia.