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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This Course Will Teach You How to Play Guitar Like a Pro for $29

BartekSzewczyk/iStock via Getty Images
BartekSzewczyk/iStock via Getty Images

Be honest: You’ve watched a YouTube video or two in an attempt to learn how to play a song on the guitar. Whether it was through tabs or simply copying whatever you saw on the screen, the fun always ends when friends start throwing out requests for songs you have no idea how to play. So how about you actually learn how to play guitar for real this time?

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Why Are Common Graves Called Potter’s Fields?

Graves in potter's fields are sometimes marked with blank headstones or crosses.
Graves in potter's fields are sometimes marked with blank headstones or crosses.
vyasphoto/iStock via Getty Images

For centuries, regions around the world have maintained common graves called potter’s fields, where they bury unidentified victims and impoverished citizens who couldn’t afford their own cemetery plots. The term potter’s field has been around for just as long.

The earliest known reference to a potter’s field is from the Gospel of Matthew, which historians believe was written sometime during the 1st century. In it, a remorseful Judas gives the 30 silver coins he was paid for betraying Jesus back to the high priests, who use it to purchase a “potter’s field” where they can bury foreigners. It’s been speculated that the priests chose land from a potter either because it had already been stripped of clay and couldn’t be used for farming, or because its existing holes and ditches made it a particularly good place for graves. But Matthew doesn’t go into detail, and as the Grammarphobia Blog points out, there’s no evidence to prove that the original potter’s field was ever actually used for its clay resources—it could’ve just been a parcel of land owned by a potter.

Whatever the case, the term eventually caught on as English-language versions of the Bible made their way across the globe. In 1382, John Wycliffe translated it from Latin to Middle English, using the phrase “a feeld of a potter,” and William Tyndale’s 1526 Greek-to-English translation of the passage featured “a potters felde,” which was altered slightly to “potters field” in King James’s 1611 edition.

Around the same time, a new definition of potter was gaining popularity that had nothing to do with pottery—in the 16th century, people began using the word as a synonym for tramp or vagrant. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it was first written in a 1525 Robin Hood tale, and William Wordsworth mentioned it in his 1798 poem “The Female Vagrant.” It’s likely that this sense of the word helped reinforce the idea that a potter’s field was intended for the graves of the unknown.

It’s also definitely not the only phrase we’ve borrowed from the Bible. From at your wit’s end to a fly in the ointment, here are 18 everyday expressions with holy origins.

[h/t Grammarphobia Blog]