Christmas has rich traditions that vary among cultures and families, and one of the most unanimous Christmas staples are the Christmas colors. Every year, we faithfully festoon our homes with evergreens and colorful decorations. Christmas colors are as entrenched in our celebrations as Christmas carols and nativity plays. They hark back to the Middle Ages—a time full of ancient rituals and rich symbolisms.
What are the colors of Christmas and how did they come to represent one of Christianity’s most important yearly celebrations? Keep reading to find out more.
What are the Classic Christmas Colors?
There has never been a color scheme more strongly associated with a specific holiday than red and green. Lush, green Christmas trees, Santa Claus and his scarlet coat, and candy canes all follow this classic color combination. And while other color mixes such as black and white may be associated with Halloween or funerals, red and green link only to our favorite Yuletide celebration.
Different colors may convey different connotations to different people. Commonly, green represents life, nature, and peace while red symbolizes fire and blood. Almost every symbol in a religion or culture is at first either directly or indirectly connected with the objects of the human environment.
How Did Red and Green Become the Traditional Colors?
Since ancient times, people have used the red and green motif in different cultural and religious traditions. In observance of the winter solstice, ancient Romans celebrated the Feast of Saturnalia in honor of their god Saturn by decorating their homes with evergreens and exchanging evergreen branches with friends as a symbol of good luck and good health. Egyptians brought palm branches and other greenery into their homes as a symbol of the new life to come after the winter. Coined today as Flor de la Noche Buena, the poinsettia was cultivated in Central Mexico by the Aztecs and used in their native processions. The Druids believed the holly tree, ripe with red berries, was sacred because it remained beautiful throughout winter. They would wear it in their hair when they ventured into the forests. Over time, these ancient traditions took different forms, but the red and green motif persevered.
In Christian culture, red and green are often associated with the forbidden fruit that Adam and Eve ate and the Tree of Knowledge. In 1300s, Catholic churches would perform miracle plays, a type of vernacular dramas of the European Middle Ages that present a real or fictitious account of the life, miracles, or martyrdom of a saint. One popular miracle play performed on Christmas Eve was called The Paradise Play, which told the familiar story of Adam and Eve. To represent the Tree of Knowledge in these plays, the church would use a pine tree with bright red apples tied to its branches. Soon, people adopted this practice and began erecting pine trees decorated with lights, apples, and tinsel in their own homes.
The classic Christmas colors of red and green are also present in medieval church art. Rood screens are carved wooden structures ornately decorated with images of saints. Consisting of alternating panels of red and green patterns, these screens stood in a church between the nave and the altar. Aside from demarcating a border within the church, Dr. Bucklow found that the red and green rood screens represent a spiritual dichotomy—a distinction between the secular and the holy, just like how the solstice marks the seasons turning from old to new.
What are Other Classic Christmas Colors?
Aside from the traditional red and green combination, other popular colors of Christmas are gold, white, and blue.
Considered a common symbol for abundance and prosperity, gold represents two important things in Christianity: the guiding star that directed the magi to Bethlehem and the gift they brought to Christ. These symbolisms permeate in today’s holiday celebrations in golden star tree toppers that serve as beacons, so to speak, atop Christmas trees and in sophisticated gift wrapping choices of gold paper, gilt foils, and ribbons. Gold is also often used in combination with red to mimic the color of the sun and fire—old age symbols of growth, vitality, and life cycles in many cultures.
As Christmas usually occurs in the winter, white has become another popular Christmas color to capture the pristine beauty of snow. In old Europe, it is a custom to embellish a fir tree in the home with white wafers that symbolized the Holy Eucharist. These white wafers were later replaced by small pastries and cookies as fir trees slowly evolved into more secular Christmas trees. Churches also used white cloth to cover the altar during Christmas ceremonies to represent light, goodness, and purity.
A color of forgiveness, blue is a symbol for the Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus. It also represented royalty and affluence during the medieval period when blue was more expensive than gold and thus the color of choice by kings and wealthy families. In Europe, churches used purple or blue cloth to cover the altar during the Advent since it has been said to represent the heavens above.
These popular colors of Christmas are deep-rooted in the history of mankind. The knowledge of the ancient customs and the symbolisms associated with these Christmas colors makes us more appreciative of how Christmas has evolved through time and more inspired and purposeful in our holiday decorations. We are, after all, heralds of this enduring Christian tradition.