Why Are Red and Green the Colors of Christmas?

Christmas banner in red and green colors with holiday ornaments

People don’t always think about the relationship between colors and holidays or events, but it’s quite interesting. If someone asked you what colors represent Halloween, you’d probably say orange and black. If someone asked you to choose colors that represent Valentine’s day, many people would say red and pink.

Now, if someone asked about Christmas colors, anyone would say red and green. Have you ever considered why this is the case?

Red and Green Christmas Colors

One might say it has something to do with Santa Claus’ bright red suit and the Christmas tree being green. That’s a pretty good guess, but it’s not the whole story.

The reason these colors are intertwined with Christmas is a little more complex than that, but the guess is a good start because it’s partly right, and people have Coca-Cola to thanks.

Santa Claus drinking cola from glass bottle at Christmas

Back in the 1930s, Coca-Cola wanted to advertise their sodas during the holidays. They wanted to create a Santa Claus that would promote their drink. The image that Coca-Cola came up with looked like you would imagine. He had a big beard, big belly, and a red outfit. In addition to that, the red-suited guy was standing next to a big green tree. The advertisement was created by Haddon Sundblom.

Everyone loves the image of Santa Claus and the Christmas tree, yet finding out this history changes things. The idea that the warm feelings you get from those colors and images came from some money-hungry soda company degrades things a bit. Yes, Coca-Cola is a big reason why these colors and images became mainstream, but the good thing is there’s more to it than that.

Beyond Coca-Cola’s Advertisement

Santa Claus in red clothes near fireplace and green Christmas tree with gifts

If you are worried that everything you know about Christmas and these colors came from Coca-Cola, you can rest easy because this is not exactly true.

Haddon Sundblom definitely helped push these colors and images into the mainstream, but this was just a vehicle. The artist got an idea of what Saint Nicholas looked like from a poem by Clement Clarke Moore. You might have heard the poem before; the piece is called “A Visit from St. Nicholas.”

In that famous poem, Santa had cheeks the color of roses and a nose like a cherry.

The poem also said his beard was white as snow and that his body shook like a “bowl full of jelly” when he laughed. Nothing in the poem spoke about the colors he used, but those lines about roses and cherries probably helped create an image in your mind similar to what Sundblom created.

This bit of history should make you feel a little better. The image you think of became a reality because of a poem. Another thing that might make you feel better is that Sundblom wasn’t the first artist to come up with this image.

A political cartoonist by the name Thomas Nast drew an image of Saint Nicholas in 1862 that looks a lot like the Santa Claus everyone knows. This drawing came out in the Harper’s Weekly, but it didn’t gather the kind of staying power Coca-Cola did.

Other companies used this idea of Saint Nicholas, like Sugar Plums by US Confection Co. NY who published a similar concept in 1868. The bubbly Santa Claus in that image was also wearing a red suit.

A humor magazine back in 1896 also published that merry old man in a red suit. He looked pretty jolly and had a sack of toys with him on the cover of Puck Magazine.

Interestingly enough, the Santa Claus in this image was sitting with a child on a green couch. Sundblom might have just been lucky, but other companies and artists were similarly depicting this character.

It’s crazy to consider all of this because Santa Claus is just an imaginary figure – or is he? Well, some folks do believe this person existed at one point.

The legend of the real Saint Nicholas comes from the 4th century. No documents say this guy truly existed, but there are writings about him. Back in 1260, a story called The Golden Legend talked about how this person gave a poor man enough gold to prevent his daughters from being sold into prostitution.

Still, this man wasn’t described as the jolly old man folks now consider Santa Claus.

Where Does the Green Come From?

Green evergreen tree outdoor with snow falling

The answer is the tree, but who decided that a tree should symbolize Christmas? A lot of folks, especially those who believe that Christmas is a holy day, might not love to hear that the tree had nothing to do with Christianity. Evergreen trees were used to celebrate the winter solstice.

Pagans used branches of evergreen trees and other winter plants to decorate during the winter months. This happened all over Europe.

Early Romans also used evergreens around the same time, but for them, it was done to honor the god of Saturn. The celebration was called Saturnalia, and it took place on the 17th of December. For a while, it was just on that one day, but days were added later on to extend the celebration until the 23rd.

You might be wondering why these folks used evergreens during their celebrations? Well, you know how winters can be in some of these regions of the world. These months are cold, and there’s hardly any color out except for the evergreens that continue to flourish.

Folks probably brought these trees and plants into their homes to make them feel happier. Think of all the plants that survive through the winter like holly, ivy, and the mistletoe, which are plants everyone’s come to associate with Christmas. For the pagans, green trees and plants meant fertility and rebirth. Hoping for fertility and rebirth at the end of the year seems more than appropriate.

The reason people were able to associate the winter solstice with the color green seems almost inevitable. After bringing green into your home, you’re bound to start having those warm fuzzy feelings every time you see these familiar plants and evergreens.

How Did the Tree Become the Christmas Tree?

Decorated Christmas tree in snow covered pine woods at night

Okay, so how did pagan customs evolve into something Christian and something everyone associates with Christmas? There’s no clear answer to this question, but there are certainly a few theories floating around.

One of the most famous theories deal with a monk named Boniface. The monk lived during the eighth century. As the story goes, Boniface saw some German native people in front of oak trees. To these folks, these trees were sacred and belonged to Thor. The native folks in this region were committing sacrifices to honor the god.

Boniface had to put a stop to this, so he grabbed an axe and chopped down an oak tree. Nothing happened to this monk, virtually proving that the god of thunder had no power.

The monk was able to convince the native people they were worshiping an idol. Chopping down the fir tree could symbolize conversion and rebirth in Christianity.

Some also point out that Christians were able to associate Christ to fir trees since these trees have a triangular shape to them.

At the time, no one was decorating the trees in the way people do now. That tradition didn’t start until the 16th century. It started in western Germany and included many of the things people now associate with Christmas, like nuts, gingerbread, and apples.

Things got more grandiose during the 17th century when decorations took off in royal courts, where trees were dressed in golden leaves with glistening candles. You can see how those candles turned into safer electrical lights later on.

For a long time, this tradition was popular among nobility, but the tradition began to spread as Germans continued to immigrate to various areas of the world.

The US didn’t adopt Christmas trees for some time though. Folks in the United States continued to see the tradition as something pagan. Still, the tree bug took hold of America during the mid-19th century, so those reservations didn’t hold for too long.

Just as Coca-Cola popularized who you now know to be Santa Claus, it took another popular entity to help popularize the decorated tree. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert helped folks accept the idea of decorating a green fir tree during Christmas.

The image that showed this new look of Christmas trees was published in Illustrated London News in 1848.

Today, the tree isn’t considered Christian or religious. People from different faiths purchase a tree and decorate it during the holidays. The history behind it isn’t common knowledge. Most people don’t even know the tree used to symbolize the Holy Trinity at one point.

The Blend of Red and Green

Red and green Christmas colors with ornaments on tree

The blend of these colors might go beyond these traditions. Some believe it deals with pre-Christian color coding traditions. Color coding isn’t practiced to the degree it once was.

Colors meant something, and the combination of colors meant something else. It was like a language that everyone understood at one point without having to explain much. Color and color combinations were used strategically.

13th century Welsh stories referred to the combination between red and green. The stories only recorded information that was passed down orally. Mixing red and green is probably much older than folks imagine.

People used these colors to symbolize a boundary. You could see how some might have used these colors during solstice to symbolize the boundary between a year ending and another beginning.

Sure, all of this could just be a coincidence, and there’s no definitive answer that tells historians where all of this started. Still, it’s clear that there’s a pattern, and it’s a very old one.

The next time someone asks this question you’ve got a lot more to say about it. Sure, you may not have the perfect answer, but you can say something about the subject. You can also take this knowledge and let it enrich your Christmas experience. After all, these traditions and colors took a long road to get to where they are now.

Red and green are not the only Christmas colors. Here are 37 Christmas color palettes that capture the true spirit of the holidays.