If you’re getting into the festive December mood, then you’re probably seeing lots of red and green everywhere. Aside from the fact that red and green are complementary colors, you might be wondering why they’re all over December. Imagine if we had like… Purple and yellow. Or don’t. Anyway, why are red and green Christmas colors?
Further Reading: Why Are Blue and White Hanukkah Colors?
We’ll circle back to the commercialization of Christmas in a minute. Broadly speaking, the history of red and green’s association with Christmas isn’t very clearly defined. We know at least as far back as 1896 American newspapers had a loose idea of red and green’s association with Christmas.
Some point to 12-century Paradise Plays as a solidifying factor for Christmas’ colors. They were basically Biblical plays performed on Christmas Eve–typically retelling the story of Genesis (the one where Adam and Eve got kicked out of Eden for eating an apple). These plays often used red fruits for the apple (if they couldn’t find a red apple in the medieval times), and probably included evergreen trees as they were performed in the winter.
Other medieval-era Biblical plays have been cited by historians as a possible catalyst for red and green being our Christmas culprits. One of the more popular ones depicted a nativity scene where baby Jesus was given some cherries. Not a holly, though. We’ll get back to that.
Others point to rood screens, their decorative painting from the Victorian era having engrained red and green as Christmas colors.
The Secret Language of Color
In The Secret Language of Color, Joann and Arielle Eckstut broadly assert that we are biologically programmed to understand the world through color. We know how edible fruits are by their color, we even know what we should or shouldn’t eat. There’s a reason poisonous animals are colorful, and why animals that want you to think they’re poisonous are colorful.
Now we’re going to circle back to holly or mistletoe. Holly’s influence on winter celebrations predates our conception of Christmas–but the stark reds and greens the plant gave people during the otherwise colorless winter was probably a good flashpoint.
When it comes to the more contemporary conception of Christmas, Arielle Eckstut points to a 1930s ad campaign by Coca-Cola. While “Santa” most definitely predates a Coke advertisement, the American archetype of him is credited by Eckstut to have come from art commissioned by Coke.
Speaking of colors, here’s a color logic puzzle.