Every major holiday has its classic color scheme. Halloween decorations are generally orange and black. Hanukkah colors are blue and white while Kwanzaa colors are black, red, and green. Valentine’s Day, as we well know, is all about reds, whites, and pinks. And every year around Christmas, the world sparkles with red and green hues.
It’s hard to imagine a time when red and green weren’t synonymous with Christmas. But they haven’t always been the holiday’s primary colors.
How did red and green came to represent Christmas? In my research I learned one thing: It’s not as linear as the string of lights around your tree.
Yes, certain traditions of the holiday, like the green of wreaths and the red of Santa’s garb, might seem like obvious sources for the tradition.
But it’s not that simple, according to Arielle Eckstut, co-author of Secret Language of Color. She attributes the palette’s rise to two things: holly and Coca-Cola.
Eckstut’s research found that holly, with its green leaves and red berries, long played a role in winter solstice celebrations that predate the spread of Christmas.
But despite holly’s deep historical roots, it would take centuries for the link between Christmas and the colors of red and green to become as solid as it is today in American culture. But, Eckstut says, one reason for that shift is clear: advertising.
Turns out that in 1931, Coca-Cola hired artist Haddon Sundblom. Never heard of him? He’s the guy who helped popularize the Santa that we know today: jolly, fat, and wearing a bright red robe.
In a 2016 interview on NPR (National Public Radio), Eckstut said, “Holly has played a huge part in this red and green association. And it dates back to winter solstice celebrations with the Romans, and maybe beyond... And also, holly is associated with the crown of thorns of Jesus.
“And just those beautiful bright red berries and those deep green leaves are the exact colors that we really come to think about when we think about Christmas.”
But it took a while for red and green to rise to the top. Eckstut says Victorian Christmas cards used a lot of different palettes (red and green, red and blue, blue and green, blue and white) and they often put Santa in blue, green or red robes.
All that changed in 1931 when Coca-Cola hired Haddon Sundblom to create a Santa Claus.
“... And so the fact that all these things came together,” Eckstut said, “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 really took hold in American culture.”
The ads were such a hit that Coke continued working with Sundblom for decades.
“It solidified in our collective imaginations,” Eckstut added, “the red of Santa’s robes with the green of fir trees and holly and pointsettia that we already had in our minds. [As a result] this particular shade of red and green came to signify Christmas.”
So let’s take a closer look at green and red…
GREEN, THE COLOR OF NATURE
I love green. Since, well, forever, green has signified growth, rebirth, and fertility. In pagan times, there was the “Green Man” —a symbol of fertility. In Muslim countries, it is a holy color and in Ireland, a lucky color.
Today’s greens can be found in a wide range of objects from pea soup to emeralds. Green is relaxing color that is pleasing to the eye. It is usually associated with nature and health. It also represents growth, money, fertility, and safety. But the color green is not just a color. It’s now the symbol of ecology and a verb.
RED, THE COLOR OF “STOP”
Red is not only found opposite the color wheel from green, it is opposite in characteristics, too. Red is the color of extremes. It’s the international color for stop. It signifies danger, anger, passionate love, fire and blood, and violence. In Asia, red is the color of good luck.
Red is also a magical and religious color. For example, it is the color of the Christian crucifixion. In ancient times, red was almost as rate and as expensive as purple. Perhaps that explains its perceived magic and power. It’s interesting to note that today’s intense red dyes come from crushed insects (the lac beetle and the cochineal, the crimson-dye-producing insect that lives on cacti).
Oh, one more thing about Sundblom. While he often gets pigeonholed as the painter of Coca-Cola Santa Clauses, this trivializes his central place in 20th century advertising art. Even more prolific than Norman Rockwell, as proved by his work for virtually the entire Fortune 500, from Maxwell House to Colgate toothpaste. Among his still-living legacy is the Quaker Oats man.
It’s no coincidence that the seasons are color-coded — or that there’s a similar story behind Hanukkah’s colors of white and blue. Eckstut’s research shows that people are biologically programmed to want to learn and understand the world through color. We know when a banana is ripe enough to eat because of its color; we know when a sockeye salmon has entered fresh water because of its color; we don’t often like to eat blue foods, because a lot of blue in nature exists in poisonous plants. So we yearn for these kinds of cues to exist in society, too, Eckstut argues.
“Color has always served as a map,” she says. “Culturally, we want that as well.”
Here’s to a joyful—and colorful—Christmas, dear Kodiak.