This article about the meaning and symbolism of Christmas red and green was originally posted for Christmas 2008.
If I say “Christmas colors” I bet red and green instantly come to mind but have you ever wondered how these two colors came to represent our most celebrated holiday?
Like any longstanding tradition there are enough stories about its origins to keep a cultural anthropologist busy for a long time but I have a few favorite theories that come complete with the color and controversy that makes any tale worth retelling.
Some think that it all began with the shiny green leaves and bright red berries of a sprig of holly. A good thought since red and green are the only bright colors that seem to survive in nature when temperatures plummet but this isn’t why we link red and green to Christmas.
The Roman’s celebrated Saturnalia a December festival that honored the god Saturn and preceded the celebrating of Christmas. During the Saturnalia festival holly wreaths were given as gifts.
It has been said that in the 4th century leaders in the Catholic Church came up with the idea to celebrate Christmas on December 25 in order to outdo the Saturnalia festivities of the pagan religion that at the time threatened Christianity’s existence. Even though it is thought that Christ birth actually took place during the spring the December date was chosen to celebrate the birth of Christ and to compete with the rival festival.
Sounds like a modern day battle of brands rather than the origins of a religious holiday doesn’t it? Of course if you are going to usurp the holiday why not take over the symbols, too and give them some deeper, and of course religious meanings.
It is said that only the holly tree consented to be cut down and its wood made into a cross to bear Jesus. Some Christians believe that Jesus wore a crown of holly thorns whose berries were originally white. As Jesus’ blood touched the berries, they turned red. The green leaves of the holly plant have come to represent everlasting life and the berries the blood of Jesus. –BBC Religion, Christmas Traditions
Years later church fathers also gave a nod to Holly as a decoration to replace mistletoe. What? I love mistletoe. Why would anyone want to replace mistletoe?
Back to religious leaders and their desire to squelch pagan beliefs. About two hundred years before the birth of Christ mistletoe was used by the Druids to celebrate the coming of winter. When congregation members began using mistletoe as Christmas decoration,,,you guessed it. This would never do so church fathers suggested that sprigs of holly would be a more appropriate adornment and suitable replacement for mistletoe.
And here my first though was that they didn’t like mistletoe because it allowed you to surprise anyone standing beneath it with a big kiss. Silly me!
Many think that the tradition of red and green started with the poinsettia plant but that didn’t become a symbol of Christmas until much more recently. Recent at least when you look at the big timeline of all human history.
The poinsettia is native to Mexico where its yellow flower surrounded by bright red leaves (yep the flower is the small yellow center and the red many think of as the blossom are actually the top leaves) is symbolic of the star of Bethlehem.
The plant along with its Christmas symbolism was first introduced to America in 1828 by America’s first ambassador to Mexico Joel Poinsett who the popular plant was named after. Hmm, how do you get to have a plant named after you? I’m sure there is more to that story but that could take me way off track and I have presents to open.
Anyway poinsettias may be considered the flower of Christmas but they aren’t the reason we think red and green.
PINE GREEN & APPLE RED
I think the most likely root of the red and green tradition dates back to the 1300s when Adam and Eve’s Day was celebrated on December 24th. Each year on this day churches traditionally presented a Paradise Play depicting the story of Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden.
Now you can’t have a story about Adam and Eve without an apple tree but since it wasn’t easy to find a real tree full of ripe, red apples during the winter apples someone came up with the idea of fastening apples to the branches of a pine tree. This decorated pine tree represented the Tree of Good and Evil. But the tree wasn’t only seen in the play. Churches began adding a tree donning red apples into their Christmas displays.
The decorated tree that began as a prop for the Paradise play was so popular especially in Germany, that people began to put pine trees up in their homes during the holiday, decorating them with red apples, as the church folks had done and the tradition of having a Christmas treee was born.
The idea spread and both Christmas trees and the color combination of red and green were well on its way to becoming official symbols of the Christmas holiday.
Have a very Merry Christmas!