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

A picture of holly on a branch.
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 ancient rood screen found in England.
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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In What Field Was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. a Doctor?

Express Newspapers/Getty Images
Express Newspapers/Getty Images

Martin Luther King Jr. earned a doctorate in systematic theology from Boston University in 1955. He’d previously earned a Bachelor of Arts from Morehouse College and a Bachelor of Divinity from Crozer Theological Seminary. His dissertation, “A Comparison of the Conception of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman,” examined the two religious philosophers’ views of God in comparison to each other, and to King’s own concept of a "knowable and personal" God.

In 1989, some three decades after King had earned his doctorate, archivists working with The Martin Luther King Papers Project discovered that King’s dissertation suffered from what they called a “problematic use of sources.” King, they learned, had taken a large amount of material verbatim from other scholars and sources and used it in his work without full or proper attribution, and sometimes no attribution at all.

In 1991, a Boston University investigatory committee concluded that King had indeed plagiarized parts of his dissertation, but found that it was “impractical to reach, on the available evidence, any conclusions about Dr. King's reasons for failing to attribute some, but not all, of his sources.” That is, it could have been anything from malicious intent to simple forgetfulness—no one can determine for sure today. They did not recommend a posthumous revocation of his degree, but instead suggested that a letter be attached to the dissertation in the university library noting the passages lacked quotations and citations.

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Who Is 'The Real McCoy'?

Inventor Elijah McCoy is may or may not be "The Real McCoy."
Inventor Elijah McCoy is may or may not be "The Real McCoy."
Ypsilanti Historical Society, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

After taking a cool, carbonated sip of champagne from the Champagne region of France, you might say, “Ah, now that’s the real McCoy.” Sparkling wine from anywhere else is technically just sparkling wine.

The phrase “the real McCoy,” which can be used to describe any genuine version of something, has several possible origin stories. And while none of them mention champagne, a few do involve other types of alcohol.

According to HowStuffWorks, the earliest known recorded instance of the saying was an 1856 reference to whisky in the Scottish National Dictionary—"A drappie [drop] o' the real MacKay”—and by 1870, a pair of whisky distillers by the name of McKay had adopted the slogan “the real McKay” for their products. As the theory goes, the phrase made its long journey across the pond, where it eventually evolved into the Americanized “McCoy.”

Another theory suggests “the real McCoy” originated in the United States during Prohibition. In 1920, Florida-based rum runner Bill McCoy was the first enterprising individual to stock a ship with alcohol in the Caribbean, sail to New York, and idle at least three miles offshore, where he could sell his wares legally in what was then considered international waters. Since McCoy didn’t water down his alcohol with substances like prune juice, wood alcohol, and even turpentine, people believe his customers started calling his top-notch product “the real McCoy.” There’s no definitive proof that this origin story is true, but The Real McCoy rum distillery was founded on the notion.

There are also a couple other leading theories that have nothing to do with alcohol. In 1872, inventor Elijah McCoy patented a self-regulating machine that lubricated parts of a steam engine without the need for manual maintenance, allowing trains to run continuously for much longer distances. According to Snopes, the invention’s success spawned a plethora of poor-quality imitations, which led railroad personnel to refer to McCoy’s machines as “the real McCoy.”

Elijah McCoy’s invention modernized the transportation industry, but he wasn’t the only 19th-century McCoy who packed a punch. The other was welterweight champion Norman Selby, better known as Kid McCoy. In one story, McCoy decked a drunken bar patron to prove that he really was the famous boxer, prompting others to christen him “the real McCoy.” In another, his alleged penchant for throwing fights caused the press to start calling him “the real McCoy” to acknowledge when he was actually trying to win. And yet another simply suggests that the boxer’s popularity birthed so many McCoy-wannabes that Selby started to specify that he was, in fact, the real McCoy.

So which “the real McCoy” origin story is the real McCoy? The 1856 Scottish mention of “the real MacKay” came before Elijah McCoy’s railroad invention, Kid McCoy’s boxing career, and Bill McCoy’s rum-running escapades, but it’s possible that the phrase just gained popularity in different spheres at different times.

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