Updated: Dec 20, 2022
“Loving would be easy if your colors were like my dream…..
Red, gold, and green
Red, gold, and green”
The combination of red and green is synonymous with Christmas cheer… whether an obnoxious sweater or a flashy tree, everyone loves this merry color combination. These two iconic hues amplify and complement each other ……“opposites" on the traditional color wheel. 21st-century artists know that complementary colors are much more complex than simple red and green... so why do we love them so much? why does it feel nostalgic and cozy? why does it make us break out in song and cut out paper snowflakes? (okay... maybe that’s just me).
We have to look to the past … and our planets to learn more...
To ward off evil spirits Ancient Celts would gather holly branches to put inside their homes. With its bright red berries and evergreen leaves, the holly plant was a contrasting glimpse of resilience and power among the bleak white snow( and those berries could kill in the right quantity). And when a Celtic king passed his rulership on, the new king was said to be crowned with holly. Pagan Druids believed this red and green plant could offer fertility and protection from evil spirits. Bob Richter, author of A Very Vintage Christmas stated "It was also the Celts and/or Pagans who began bringing in greens as a way to honor the change in seasons and bring life into their homes during the cold winter months.” The use of this festive decor also dates to Roman winter solstice celebrations. In ancient times, Romans celebrated Saturnalia, an agrarian winter festival honoring the god Saturn. Once the winter planting was over, Romans would celebrate with feasting, drinking, gift-giving, and charity. They decorated their houses with berries, evergreens, and candles, often gifting each other with holly wreaths...... and maybe a little debauchery and sacrifice too.
Christians adopted the practice of using evergreens in wreaths, garlands, and trees. The evergreen symbolizes protection, prosperity, good luck, and fertility for the impending new year. Some Christians associate the prickly holly leaves with the crown of thorns, and the berries for the sacrificial blood of Christ. Around the 14th century Christians were using medieval rood screens, often colored in red and green. These decorative partitions were installed in churches to separate the congregation from the priest and the altar. Dr. Spike Bucklow, a research scientist at the University of Cambridge, "speculates that this physical boundary could have influenced Victorians to associate the colors with a different boundary, marking the end of the old year and the beginning of a new one at Christmas." During this period, Red was associated with Mars ( red comes from Iron), and Green with Venus ( Green comes from copper) and it’s very likely the average viewer would have made these celestial connections.
Unfortunately, rood screens are rare these days because many of them were destroyed during the Reformation of the 16th century. Dr. Bucklow states that “After a while, I was quite surprised that those colors were repeated so often,” The planet Mars ( the red planet) got its name from the Roman god of war and Venus from the goddess of love. In poetry, says Bucklow, Mars is typically described as red, while Venus is often pictured rising out of the green sea. Pairing these colors “sets up the idea of duality: male and female, love and war, that kind of stuff,” he continues.
Red and green represent the sacred and the secular coming together…. a reminder of what’s temporary versus eternal. These colors were also gendered…..red for men and green for women, intermingling the colors throughout the design to depict equality of access to heaven.
By the Renaissance rood screens were out of fashion.. architects and painters favored larger spaces and these ornate partitions just got in the way. But by the late 19th century and the Gothic Revival of the Victorian era these screens and colors became popular again…. the color combination likely felt like a symbol of the rediscovery of Christian values. Victorians reintroduced this color combo while still using other popular color pairs such as blue and white, red and blue, and blue and green. Santa Claus wore all sorts of color combinations at the time… not just red, but it makes sense for him to wear the color of his predecessor Saint Nicholas of Myra who would have worn red priestly gowns.
Fast forward in time and we can see how red and green emerged as a capitalistic embodiment of all gift-givers from Odin to Saint Nicholas to Sinterklass and the like. The company Coca-cola knew the power of this charitable figure. In the 1930s they hired illustrator Haddon Sundblom to create a new simpler Santa Claus that wore red rather than white or blue, and held a coke bottle instead of a pipe. The red Santa and green holly worked well with their already staple red can design. He wasn’t the only illustrator who put red robes on Santa ( Thomas Nast also did it). Arielle Eckstut, the co-author of Secret Language of Color, states “And so the fact that all these things came together—this friendly, fat Santa in these bright red robes, which, I don’t think is a coincidence, match the color of the Coke logo—this took hold in American culture,”... “It solidified in our collective imaginations the red of Santa’s robes with the green of fir trees and holly and poinsettia that we already had in our minds.”
There you have it, from ancient winter solstice celebrations to modern times, red and green are the chosen Christmas colors. Red.... a color from Mars representing power and resilience, a sacrificial color worthy of a priest. Green is the color of Venus, giving us fertility and hope for a new year. So this Christmas.... as you toss your empty red coke can into the trash bin, be reminded that the colors of Christmas, as it turns out, had their beginnings in the stars.