Why Are Red and Green Traditional Christmas Colors?

Why Are Red and Green Traditional Christmas Colors?

A color scheme of pure red and green say Christmas because these two hues have come to be known as the colors of this widely celebrated holiday. Have you ever wondered, "Why are red and green traditional Christmas colors?"

I have waded through scholarly research and popular tales only to find that there are many conflicting stories. What follows is a distilled version of what I think are the most likely reasons, and in the process, I'll dispel some common myths about why we associate these colors with the Christmas season.

Why are Red and Green Traditional Christmas Colors? Holly Isn't the Reason.

Holly is Red and Green Traditional Christmas Colors

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Many think the color connection began with the shiny green leaves and bright red berries of a sprig of holly. Holly retains its color when temperatures plummet; it's a good guess, but holly isn't why we link red and green to Christmas.

Long before anyone put up sprigs of holly to celebrate the birth of Christ, mistletoe was the decoration of choice at this time of year. As far back as two hundred years, B.C. mistletoe was used by the Druids to celebrate the coming of winter. When Christians picked up the idea from the Druids and began using mistletoe as Christmas decoration, church fathers suggested that sprigs of holly would be a more appropriate adornment. Holly came to replace mistletoe as a leafy symbol of Christmas.

Is the Poinsettia the Reason Red and Green are the Traditional Christmas Colors?

Some think that the tradition of red and green began with another plant - the poinsettia plant. Again not true. The poinsettia plant didn't become a symbol of Christmas until more recently.

Pointsettia in traditional red and green Christmas colors

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The poinsettia is native to Central America, where its yellow flower surrounded by bright red leaves is symbolic of the star of Bethlehem. The plant was first introduced to America in 1828 by America's first ambassador to Mexico Joel Poinsett, who the plant is named after. Poinsettias became the most prevalent flower of Christmas recognized as a symbol of the season, but they aren't the reason we think red and green. Quite the opposite. Red and green were already a part of the holiday tradition, and the plant rose in popularity because it was naturally these two colors.

Passion Plays are the Reason Red and Green are the Traditional Christmas Colors, Right?

For some, the beginning of the red and green tradition dates back to the 1300s when on December 24th, churches presented a Paradise Play depicting the story of Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden.

Red Apples on Pine Tree - Original Christmas Tree Decorations

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Since you can't have a story about Adam and Eve without an apple tree, someone came up with the idea of fastening apples to the branches of a pine tree. The decorated tree that began as a prop for the Paradise play was so popular, especially in Germany, that churches began adding a tree donning red apples into their Christmas display, and people began to put pine trees up in their homes.

Decorating a tree with the red apples began the tradition of decorating a Christmas tree as we know it now. However, in most homes every color of the rainbow, not just red, adorned the tree, as well as Christmas cards, and other holiday decorations.

The Modern Santa Claus, Red and Green as Christmas Colors Connection

In 1881, artist Thomas Nast an artist known for his legendary political cartoons, gave birth to our modern-day version of Santa Claus. His illustration for Harper's Weekly, along with the poem A Visit from St. Nicholas, more commonly known as "The Night Before Christmas," started to create the image of Santa Claus still popular today.

Santa's Portrait by Thomas Nast, published in Harper's Weekly, 1881

Image credit:'Santa's Portrait' by Thomas Nast, published in Harper's Weekly, 1881 Public Domain

Standing Santa by Thomas Nast

Image credit: 1881 illustration by Thomas Nast Public Domain

Following Nast's lead, many artists similarly depicted Santa. By the 20th century, Father Christmas, who originally donned robes in tan and many other colors, was transformed into the red-suited version of Santa Claus we are familiar with today. One of the most well-recognized images of the modern interpretation of St. Nick is the one created by Haddon Sundblom for The Coca-Cola Company.

Sundblom is sometimes incorrectly credited with coming up with this rounder version of Santa wearing his now-iconic red suit, but that look was originally Thomas Nast's idea. Sunblom did refine the image of Santa as he worked on paintings for Coco-Cola's holiday campaign from 1931 to 1965. These campaigns were instrumental in imprinting a rosy-cheeked, jolly Santa in a red suit on our minds.

The ads, which were primarily red, white, and green, seem to have been the tipping point for red and green becoming prominent in Christmas decorations. Before the mid-20th century, a variety of colors were used for holiday decorations. Between the 1930s and 1950s, coinciding with when the Coco-Cola holiday campaigns ran, red and green became the predominant colors of the season.

Today, you can find decorations in many hues, but red and green are the ones that symbolize the holiday. It just wouldn't be Christmas without these colors. So go gather up all of the red and green you can find and get ready to enjoy the spirit of the season.

What Colors will You be Decorating with this Year?

Are you decorating with traditional red and green or going for your unique take on holiday colors? Leave a comment and let me know your Christmas color palette.

Read Time: 4 min
  • Wendy McMonigle says:

    Thanks so much for sharing, very interesting and informative! I went with the traditional red and green using a lot of plaid this year, very fun. Have a wonderful holiday!

    • Kate Smith says:

      You had me at plaid, Wendy. I love the look of mixing plaid with red and green. It is a combination that I could do over and over again for Christmas. Thanks for the holiday wishes. Cheers, Kate

  • linda says:

    Thank you Kate, great and informative article!
    My color palate this year is pink and gold, living in Florida, it works very well.
    Merry Christmas, LL

    • Kate Smith says:

      Pink is a perfect color for Christmas in Florida. Enjoy being “in the pink” this holiday season.

  • Laura Gilvin says:

    Very interesting – thank you for sharing! I also am in LOVE with the paint tree from your email – it’s beautiful! Did you create it?

    • Kate Smith says:

      Thanks for the compliments, Laura. The colorful paint splatter tree in my email was something I created by adapting a stock image to fit my colorful style. I’m glad you enjoyed it.

  • Sunny says:

    Tropical ocean aquamarines and blues in glittery and matte finishes

    • Kate Smith says:

      I love the idea of tropical blues and the contrast of glittery and matte finishes. Enjoy your gorgeous holiday decor, Sunny.

  • Kelli says:

    My decorations this year are gold and two shades of aqua and I love it!

    • Kate Smith says:

      Your color palette sounds elegant, Kelli. Thanks for sharing your Christmas colors.

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