How Did Red & Green Become Traditional Christmas Colors?

Have red and green always been part of Christmas tradition? The answer may surprise you.

Why Red & Green Are Christmas Colors

From poinsettias to Christmas stockings hung by the fire with care, the Christmas season is dripping with vibrant reds and greens as far as the eye can see. But how did red and green become the signature color combination of Christmas?

Like many Christmas traditions, the history of why greens and reds are associated with the season is storied and debated. In this piece, we highlight the origin stories—one of which will undoubtedly surprise you.

“Holly Jolly” Inspiration from Ancient Pagans

While the Christmas holiday itself is rooted in religion, there are several pagan infusions that have shaped how we celebrate. And as some report, the greens and reds are one of those hybrid traditions—thanks to holly plants.

As Reader’s Digest reports: “Ancient Celtic peoples revered red- and green-colored holly plants for being evergreen and believed holly was meant to keep Earth beautiful during the dead of winter. So when they and other cultures celebrated the winter solstice, they decorated their homes with holly to bring protection and good luck to their families in the coming year.”

It’s also been reported that ancient Romans used holly as part of their winter solstice celebrations, too.

The Crown of Thorns

Holly actually plays a double role in the history of this tradition. Holly is closely associated with the crown of thorns placed on Jesus’ head before he died on the cross. As a fun fact, holly is known as “christdorn” in German, which means “Christ thorn.”

Legend says the berries were originally white, but the blood Jesus shed for our sins forever stained the berries red.

The Paradise Play

This explanation is one of the more colorful (pun intended) theories.

But as David Landry, who religious studies at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, MN, told a local news station, he believes red and green likely became part of tradition thanks to a 14th century play depicting the world’s first man and woman.

“One of these plays was the Paradise play—the fall of Adam and Eve,” he told the station. “The traditional date for that was Dec. 24.”

More specifically, the storied apple prop was red, and of course, the tree was green.

Coca-Cola’s Iconic Santa Claus

Arielle Eckstut, co-author of Secret Language of Color, has spoken to many publications about the Christmas colors origin stories. She attributes the rise of the colors to two things. The first is holly.

"Holly has played a huge part in this red and green association," she told NPR with confidence.

As for her second theory, that one’s more interesting, dating back to a Coca-Cola hiring decision in 1931.

“Coca-Cola hired an artist to create a Santa Claus," Arielle said in an interview with NPR. "They had done this before, but this particular artist created a Santa Claus that we associate with the Santa Claus today in many ways: He was fat and jolly—whereas before he was often thin and elf-like—and he had red robes.”

“It solidified in our collective imaginations the red of Santa's robes with the green of fir trees and holly and [poinsettia] that we already had in our minds,” she added.

According to NPR, that artist was Haddon Sundblom. Since his art was such a bit hit, Coca-Cola continued working with him for decades.

Photo Credit: Coca-Cola via Miel Van Opstal/Flickr

Colorful Threads of the Same Fabric—That’s Tradition

Every tradition we hold dear has a variety of influences and evolves over time—and the signature colors of Christmas are no exception.

While there’s no one agreed upon point of origin, it’s safe to say that every theory has shaped the overall story of the colors of Christmas. And at the end of the day, it’s simply tradition.

What long-time or unique Christmas traditions does your family honor each year? Tell us in the comments section below.  

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