Why Are Christmas Colors Green and Red?

Christmas is around the corner, and we’re already seeing the colors red and green everywhere we look. The red-and-green color scheme makes us think of holly red and mistletoe green, Christmas-themed movies and presents, and makes us feel all warm and fuzzy inside. We associate modern-day Christmas decorations like advent calendars and tastefully strung ornaments next to the fireplace with that wonderful time of the year. But have you ever wondered just why are green and red Christmas colors?

In spite of its commercial and festive context and its power to make us mentally enter into the holiday spirit, this particular choice of colors was merely popularized within the modern-day Christmas tradition. But the now traditional combination of red and green is not exactly new. In fact, it goes way back. Yes, it evolved over time, but the origins of the instantly recognizable combo can be traced all the way back to the Pagan times.

Where Did Red and Green for Christmas Come From?

No one can explain with absolute certainty why Christmas colors are green and red, and how the pattern evolved to be so closely associated with Christmas, but several theories make sense. It is probably true that all the answers are correct and that we owe the green and red color combination to a number of traditions, from that of our Pagan ancestors to the 20th-century marketing schemes. And we can predict with great certainty that the combination of green and red will always make us think of Christmas and immediately evoke the holiday spirit.

What Color Was Christmas Originally?

For one thing, Christmas was not originally Christmas. We cannot forget the Pagan roots of Christmas, which have a lot to do with Yule, a festival of the Germanic peoples, and other similar festivities across Pagan cultures worldwide. Many Pagan traditions were transformed into Christian traditions, including but not limited to:

  • Decorating the Christmas tree
  • Ornaments
  • Candles
  • Celebrating with sweets and drinks shared with friends and family
  • Various versions of whom we know as Santa. 

Even mistletoe, evergreen branches, and sprigs of holly, with their red berries and green leaves, have Pagan roots. This is one possible interpretation of the typically Christmassy red and green color scheme. Now let’s take a look at the Medieval Christian perspective.

Take Me to Church?

Here’s an explanation that has more to do with the Christian church. A study conducted by a specialist in the history of artists’ resources was not to discover the origin of Christmas decorations. Without intending to, Spike Bucklow of the Hamilton Kerr Institute, the conservation branch of the University of Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum was able to provide another possible explanation of how Christmas was color-coded. His original focus was to learn how to preserve a specific intricately decorated and masterfully crafted feature of medieval church architecture known as a rood screen:

The screen was typically made out of richly carved wood or stone and it served to separate the choir or chancel where the clergy sat from the nave where the congregation gathered. 

Depending on the resources and affluence of the community that acquired them, the design of rood panels could range from a simple to a highly ornate depiction of the local saints. Rood screens were common across northern Europe.

Few rood screens have been preserved. In the 16th century, when the furious Protestant Reformation movement swept through Europe, many complex and ornate works of religious art were deliberately destroyed. Protestants were determined to break with the tradition and the doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church, and lavishly decorated churches were part of it. As a result, the rood screens in existence nowadays are quite rare.

However, one of the places where the once common architectural element has been preserved is eastern England. Upon close examination, a pattern started to emerge: a substantial portion of the displays employed red and green extensively. After some time, the researchers noted that it was rather surprising how frequently those hues were employed. 

They weren’t the first ones to notice the repetition of the red and green pattern, but they were the only ones to offer a theory as to why it might have occurred and why we now associate the colors red and green with Christmas: 

At the time when these architectural wonders were created, there was a limited supply of resources. Artists used what was available to make paint, and it was the ingredients that went into the paint used to adorn rood screens that defined the color scheme.

During medieval times, copper was used to get green, whereas iron was used to make red. The two metals were also associated with the planets. Copper for Venus and iron for Mars. This adds an additional layer of symbolism to the color combination.

What Is the Significance of Red and Green at Christmas?

Beyond the mere fact that Venus is the goddess of love and Mars is named after the Roman god of war, these connections go deeper. Red and green were, by extension, gendered colors; they were associated with men and women, respectively. In works of poetry, Venus was often symbolized by the green color of the sea, and Mars was typically portrayed by the color red. 

To the viewers in medieval times, the combination of these two colors conjures concepts of duality, such as masculine and female, love and conflict, etc. 

The placement of rood screens between laypeople and clergy sent a clear message and had a powerful effect on church-goers. These structures provided a visual, physical depiction of transitioning from a profane space to a sacred environment. So the contrast between red and green could have been used to emphasize this dualism. 

Interestingly enough, rood screens were not intended to favor one sex over the other. Although these elements could have been viewed as a stairway to heaven, from a symbolic, figurative perspective, the church still insisted on the equality of access to heaven regardless of gender. Because of this, red and green were often mixed asymmetrically so that neither color would become dominant over the other.

Be that as it may, rood screens had fallen out of favor by the late Renaissance. By 1800, rood screens were rendered obsolete. Architects preferred a smooth, uninterrupted view of the building’s interior. The feature was not brought back into the public light until the Gothic Revival of the Victorian era in the late 19th century.

What Are Victorian Christmas Colors?

It seems to be the Victorians who color-coded Chrismas once and for all. It seems that the modern-day Christmas color scheme is a Victorian creation, possibly influenced by all the traditions that came before it. The reason why Victorians chose red and green is simple: they were rediscovering Christianity itself, and by extension, the rood screens which had traditionally featured the colors red and green. Rich red and burgundy were especially prominent components of their go-to palette.

The story doesn’t end there, of course. The Victorians brought the color scheme back, but it wasn’t the one and only one available at the time. If you look back in history and examine, for instance, Victorian Christmas cards, you’ll notice a rich variety of color combinations, not simply red and green. Victorians also favored ivory, mauve, lavender, pink, and peacock shades of blue, green, and teal. Blue and white, blue and red, and blue and green were among the popular pairings.

But how did green and red outlive these fads and become the combination?

Ho, Ho, Ho: Was Santa Green Before Red?

Yes, in many traditions, Santa’s suit was indeed green. But since Santa was technically based on St Nicholas, a very real historical figure often depicted as wearing red, it’s not surprising that Santa’s suit has been red for decades and is not likely to change to another color anytime soon.

It took decades after the Victorians were long gone and a major player in the beverage market to properly establish the iconic color scheme. After all, it was only a matter of time before marketing and advertising would seize the opportunity to profit off of the holiday tradition and help further commercialize Christmas. Yes, it’s not an urban myth. The missing component in this particular holiday conundrum might indeed be Coca-Cola and Santa Claus.

The legendary character of Santa Claus has been present in one form or another in the Pagan tradition and across cultures. His predecessors include Saint Nicholas, a 4th-century Greek Christian bishop who was known for his generous gifts to the poor, but also Sinterklaas who was based on Saint Nicholas, and Father Chrismas who dates back to the 16th century, both of whom originated in Western Christian culture. But the Santa that we all know and love is a product of globalization. 

For use in its commercials, Coca-Cola hired artist Haddon Sundblom to reimagine Santa Claus in 1931. The artist Coca-Cola hired made Santa plump and cheerful rather than tiny and elf-like. In addition, he made Santa’s attire upbeat: red rather than blue or green. 

The color red was possibly used because of its power to stimulate appetite. It is certainly not a coincidence that Santa’s iconic red and white color combination emulates the Coca-Cola logo, which really solidified American culture before it grew into a global phenomenon.

Everything came together and we now associate Christmas and the New Year with this friendly, chubby Santa in his garish red robes.