Why Are Red and Green the Colors of Christmas?

Staras/iStock via Getty Images
Staras/iStock via Getty Images

As the last Thanksgiving leftover is consumed and the calendar flips to December, the unmistakable red-and-green flood of the Christmas season comes into view. The two colors fill malls and living rooms around the world, and adorn nearly every decoration, strand of lights, and ugly sweater on store shelves. The Christmas season is inextricably connected to this color combination—but why?

Look around the internet for why red and green are classic Christmas colors and one usual suspect immediately pops up: Coca-Cola.

The legend goes that when the soft drink icon was advertising around the holidays in the 1930s, the company produced images of a red-clad Santa alongside a green fir tree. These images were enough to solidify red, green, and Christmas in our shared consciousness.

Sadly, these stories should be taken with a lump of coal. Red and green were Christmas colors well before Coke was being sold as Santa’s favorite beverage. For instance, an 1896 newspaper mentions, "The decoration of the hall was as unique and effective as anything ever attempted. The Christmas colors, red and green, prevailed."

While there may be no definitive consensus on how this color scheme came to be, there are a few interesting candidates for the official answer.

Candidate 1: Paradise Trees

Probably the most obscure of the hypotheses suggests red and green may go back to Paradise Plays, which were a traditional play performed on Christmas Eve about the Fall of Man and Adam and Eve’s banishment from the Garden of Eden. The story can’t be recreated without a tree, so surviving stage instructions from one circa-12th-century play say that “divers trees be therein” (and since it was winter, any good-looking tree was probably an evergreen). You also need a fruit to hang from it—say, a red apple or a pomegranate.

It’s widely thought that as the Paradise Play died out, the tree remained—and turned into the modern Christmas tree. A view exists that the red of the fruit and the green of the tree linked the two colors in popular imagination with the Christmas season.

Paradise Plays weren’t the only Biblical plays being performed in the medieval period. One of the most famous is the Second Shepherds’ (or Shepherd’s; it’s unclear) Play, which combines a comic farce about sheep-stealing with a nativity story. One of the gifts presented to an infant Christ in the story is a bob of cherries. (Not holly, but cherries.) Some historians argue that this shows an association with red and green and Christmas that dates back centuries.

Candidate 2: Holly

Mike Caffrey/iStock via Getty Images

Speaking of holly: It is yet another popular candidate for why green and red have come to represent Christmas. Religious Studies professor Bruce David Forbes theorizes that medieval Europeans were looking for something to do during the bleakness of winter. So, why not party?

And that party “would feature evergreens, as signs of life when everything else seems to have died, plus other plants that not only stay green but even bear fruit in the middle of winter, like holly or mistletoe.” (Although mistletoe berries are actually white.) These bright reds and greens in the middle of winter may have made them natural (or obvious) candidates for the colors of Christmas.

Candidate 3: Rood Screens

An example of the red and green paint found on ancient rood screens. This one is from St James's Church in Great Ellingham, England.Evelyn Simak via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0

In 2011, Cambridge University’s Spike Bucklow commented, “We ... recognize holly as being a quintessentially Christmas plant. That red and green is in our psyche because of the Victorians, but it was in their psyche because of the medieval paint that we can still see on 15th- and 16th-century rood screens.”

Rood screens were an integral part of Western churches up until around the time of the Reformation. Their purpose was to separate the nave (where the congregation sits) from the chancel (around the altar, where the clergy would be) and were intricately designed with local saints, donors, or other figures. And colors.

According to Bucklow, popular combinations of colors were red/green and blue/gold, with one pair of colors being watery (blue or green) and one fiery (gold or red). Bucklow suggests that these colors were part of a representative barrier—separating the more earthly parishioners from the more spiritual altar and sanctuary.

By the time of the Reformation in England, rood screens had largely fallen out of use. In the years afterward, they would be vandalized or ignored as they decayed. Centuries later, according to Bucklow, the Victorians began restoring these rood screens and noticed the red/green color combination. It’s possible that they adapted this red and green color scheme for a different boundary: when one year ended and the next began.

Bucklow even cites a 13th-century collection of Welsh stories to support his argument that a red and green color combination is symbolic of boundaries. He said in a 2011 Cambridge news release: “As one example, the red–green color coding appears in the Mabinogion, a collection of Welsh stories from the 13th century, but almost certainly based on an oral tradition that dates back to the pre-Christian Celts many centuries before. Here, the hero comes to a half-red, half-green tree that marks a boundary.”

Though no one has a concrete explanation for our affinity for red and green around Christmas, it's clear that it's not a recent development. Rather, as Bucklow explains, the association between the holiday and these festive colors could be masking a "profound and long-forgotten other history.”

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Looking to Downsize? You Can Buy a 5-Room DIY Cabin on Amazon for Less Than $33,000

Five rooms of one's own.
Five rooms of one's own.
Allwood/Amazon

If you’ve already mastered DIY houses for birds and dogs, maybe it’s time you built one for yourself.

As Simplemost reports, there are a number of house kits that you can order on Amazon, and the Allwood Avalon Cabin Kit is one of the quaintest—and, at $32,990, most affordable—options. The 540-square-foot structure has enough space for a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom, and a sitting room—and there’s an additional 218-square-foot loft with the potential to be the coziest reading nook of all time.

You can opt for three larger rooms if you're willing to skip the kitchen and bathroom.Allwood/Amazon

The construction process might not be a great idea for someone who’s never picked up a hammer, but you don’t need an architectural degree to tackle it. Step-by-step instructions and all materials are included, so it’s a little like a high-level IKEA project. According to the Amazon listing, it takes two adults about a week to complete. Since the Nordic wood walls are reinforced with steel rods, the house can withstand winds up to 120 mph, and you can pay an extra $1000 to upgrade from double-glass windows and doors to triple-glass for added fortification.

Sadly, the cool ceiling lamp is not included.Allwood/Amazon

Though everything you need for the shell of the house comes in the kit, you will need to purchase whatever goes inside it: toilet, shower, sink, stove, insulation, and all other furnishings. You can also customize the blueprint to fit your own plans for the space; maybe, for example, you’re going to use the house as a small event venue, and you’d rather have two or three large, airy rooms and no kitchen or bedroom.

Intrigued? Find out more here.

[h/t Simplemost]

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Who Were the Actual Brooks Brothers?

Phillip Pessar, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Phillip Pessar, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Brooks Brothers has been a mainstay of American formal wear for more than 200 years. The company’s suits have been worn by 40 U.S. presidents. They have supplied uniforms to the American armed forces and suits to regular people for their most important life events: going to the prom, attending their first job interview, getting married.

But in July 2020, the firm filed for bankruptcy, likely a victim of the working-from-home trend and the move towards more casual clothing. The Brooks Brothers’s name has been woven into the fabric of American fashion, yet a certain mystery surrounds the people behind the business. Who were the original Brooks Brothers, anyway?

The firm that would go on to be known as Brooks Brothers was established on April 7, 1818, by 45-year-old Henry Sands Brooks and his younger brother, David, as H & D. H. Brooks and Co. Before setting up the store, Henry Sands Brooks had been a provisioner for traders and seafarers, and likely did brisk business in New York City’s seaport. Their shop was situated on the corner of Catherine and Cherry streets in Lower Manhattan, a major shopping district that supported a number of clothing stores. It was said Brooks was something of a dandy with an eye for fashion.

Brooks Brothers ran a full-page ad celebrating its centenary in 1918.New York Evening Post // Public Domain

Henry Sands Brooks died in 1833, and the store passed to his eldest son, Henry Jr. When he died in 1850, Brooks Sr.’s four younger sons Daniel, John, Elisha, and Edward inherited the firm and renamed it Brooks Brothers. At this point, the store began to stand out from the crowd. The brothers adopted their familiar logo of a sheep suspended by a ribbon representing the Golden Fleece. This ancient symbol hearkened back to the Greek legend of Jason and the Argonauts, and was used by tailors and wool merchants across Europe as a sign of quality. By embracing this symbol, the brothers were announcing the caliber of their goods and aligning themselves with the prestige of European fashion.

While building a brand on traditional quality, the brothers also saw an opportunity to modernize. Brooks Brothers began specializing in ready-to-wear suits—an innovation that made “gentlemen’s clothing” accessible and affordable to ordinary Americans. An advertisement in New York’s Evening Post in June 1850 stated that Brooks Brothers ‘have on hand a large stock of ready-made clothing, suited to the tastes and wants of purchasers.’ Brooks Brothers also capitalized on the California Gold Rush by selling their ready-made suits to gold-seekers who didn’t have time to wait for a tailor to construct bespoke suits.

Business boomed in the years leading up to the Civil War, a time when the company benefited from slavery. Much of the cotton used by Brooks Brothers was picked by enslaved laborers in the South. The company also manufactured the types of uniforms worn by enslaved people forced to work as house servants.

Perhaps as a result of their experience making such clothing, Brooks Brothers was given a large contract by the Union government at the start of the Civil War to provide tens of thousands of uniforms for enlisted soldiers. A scandal blew up when the garments were delivered: it was obvious that the uniforms were of low quality, missing buttons or buttonholes, and made from cheap scraps of cloth glued instead of sewn together. When the outfits were exposed to wind and rain, they fell apart. In the rush to manufacture them for the war effort, Brooks Brothers had, in fact, substituted cheap and flimsy material instead of the usual grade of cloth—they were allowed to, according to the provisions written into their contract.

The New York state legislature launched an investigation, accusing the company of profiteering. When asked how much money the company had made by downgrading the cloth, Elisha Brooks prevaricated. “I think that I cannot ascertain the difference without spending more time than I can now devote to that purpose,” Brooks told lawmakers. Ultimately, Brooks Brothers agreed to replace 2350 of the substandard uniforms at a cost of $45,000.

An illustration of looters throwing trousers and other garments out of the Brooks Brothers store during New York City's draft riots appeared on the front page of Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper on August 1, 1863.Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, 19th Century American Newspapers, Gale Primary Sources // Public Domain

The company’s association with outfitting the Union Army got them into trouble again in July 1863. The casualties among members of New York regiments were increasing as the war showed no signs of resolution. In New York City, working class people protested against the draft, and the protests quickly turned into a riot of racist violence and looting. Brooks Brothers’s Cherry Street store was one of the establishments it targeted. Harper’s Weekly reported that “a large number of marauders paid a visit to the extensive clothing-store of Messrs. Brooks Brothers … there they helped themselves to such articles as they wanted, after which they might be seen dispersing in all directions, laden with their ill-gotten booty.”

Brooks Brothers’s reputation didn’t suffer for long, however. At his second presidential inauguration in March 1865, Abraham Lincoln wore a greatcoat made by the company. It featured an eagle embroidered into its lining with the motto “One Country, One Destiny.” Lincoln was wearing the same coat when, just two weeks later, he was assassinated at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. After his death, Mary Todd Lincoln gave the coat to Alphonse Donn, a doorman at the White House, who kept it for the rest of his life. Donn’s family eventually sold the coat to the United States Capitol Historical Society, and it is now in the Ford’s Theatre museum's collection.

Brooks Brothers continued to grow and expand. The company introduced enduring fashions such as the button-down polo shirt in 1896, the sack suit in 1901, and their own version of a British regimental tie, the striped rep tie, in 1902.

For more than 200 years, the company has outfitted presidents, Wall Street traders, and businesspeople, becoming an iconic American brand with worldwide appeal. But today, their future may be less certain.