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What does the red of Christmas symbolize?

What does the red of Christmas symbolize?

The color red has become strongly associated with Christmas over the centuries. But why is red such a significant color during the holiday season? Here we explore the history, meaning, and symbolism behind the red of Christmas.

The History of Red in Christmas

The use of the color red during Christmas began with the history and legends around Saint Nicholas. Saint Nicholas was a Christian bishop in the Greek city of Myra during the 4th century A.D. He became famous for his generosity and gift giving, especially to children and the poor.

According to one legend, Saint Nicholas learned of a poor man who could not afford dowries for his three daughters to be married. Saint Nicholas secretly threw three bags of gold down the man’s chimney, which landed in the daughters’ stockings hung by the fire to dry. This led to the tradition of children hanging stockings on Christmas Eve hoping Saint Nicholas would fill them with gifts and treats. As the legend of Saint Nicholas spread, he became known by the name Santa Claus.

In early depictions of Saint Nicholas from Greece, Turkey, and other Eastern Orthodox areas, he was shown wearing traditional red bishop robes. When the Saint Nicholas legends made their way to Europe, artists continued to portray Santa Claus in red robes and clothing.

The Meaning of the Color Red

The emphasis on the color red for Christmas is not just tied to Saint Nicholas legends. Red also carries symbolism that evokes the meaning of Christmas.

In color psychology, red is associated with excitement, passion, anger, action, stimulation, and aggression. It catches people’s attention and increases heart rate and blood pressure. The boldness of red elicits strong emotions and is seen as an intense, energetic color.

During the festive Christmas season, red represents the excitement, action, and vibrancy of the holidays. It stimulates energetic, joyful feelings appropriate for a celebration. The passion and thrill of Christmas morning are reflected in Christmas colors that feature bright, deep reds.

Red is also tied to love, warmth, comfort, and security. In the winter, red conjures up a warm hearth fire, Christmas stockings hanging with care, and being with loved ones. Rich red velvets and Christmas sweaters evoke cozy wintertime feelings.

As the color of the heart, red is connected to love and affection. The loving spirit of Christmas is represented by gifts wrapped in red paper or ribbons. Red poinsettias symbolize the deep love of the Christmas season.

Christian Symbolism

For Christians, red holds special spiritual symbolism related to Jesus’s death and resurrection. In the Bible, Isaiah 1:18 describes sins being red like crimson but made “white as snow” through God’s forgiveness. Red religious vestments symbolize the blood of martyrs and Jesus’ sacrifice.

The use of red at Christmas stems back to the fourth century with Saint Nicholas’s red bishop robes. But the poignant Christian meaning behind red came to prominence during the Middle Ages. Red symbolized the blood of Christ and the Christian church. It was featured heavily in holiday imagery to honor Jesus and represent his sacrifice.

This symbolism continues today, as red depicts the death of Jesus and the promise of salvation. It reminds Christians of the love and sacrifice of God on Christmas Day. Christmas cards with religious imagery often show Mary and Jesus wrapped in red robes or blankets signifying the blood of Christ.

Santa’s Red Suit

Though Saint Nicholas was depicted in red bishop robes, the exact origins of Santa’s red suit are murky. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Santa was commonly illustrated wearing a variety of colors: blue, green, brown, tan, or red. Over time, red became the standard probably because red was commonly associated with Christmas and winter.

The 1931 Coca-Cola advertising campaign helped solidify Santa’s red suit in the public imagination. Their Christmas ads featured Santa in bright red robes with white trim, offered free to use for other companies. Though Coke didn’t come up with the red Santa suit, their ubiquitous ads cemented red as the definitive Santa color.

While religious meaning probably influenced early red Santa depictions, the modern red Santa suit mainly derives from secular Christmas traditions and Coke’s advertising. Today, Santa’s red suit is important for visibility – red makes Santa stand out against the snowy backdrop of Christmas.

Pagan Roots

Some connections between red and Christmas stem from pagan winter traditions predating Christianity. Ancient pagan religions viewed red as symbolic of fire, blood, and life. Red was associated with the changing of seasons and the upcoming return of the sun.

During the winter solstice, Germanic people honored the gods with fires, candles, and evergreen decorations. The Mesopotamians burned red objects in homage to their god Marduk during the winter festival of Zagmuk. The ancient Egyptians brought palm branches into their houses at the winter solstice as a tribute to the sun god Ra.

When Christianity spread into northern Europe, these cultures adapted their winter solstice traditions to celebrate the birth of Jesus rather than pagan gods. Traditions like burning the yule log, decorating with evergreens, and giving gifts lived on. Using red as a festive winter color evolved from its significance in ancient pagan winter celebrations.

Commercialization and Marketing

Though red holds religious, historical, and symbolic significance related to Christmas, commercial interests have cemented red as a staple Christmas color.

In the 20th century, red and green became popular Christmas colors thanks to marketing efforts by Coca-Cola, retailers, and popular media. Red and green adorned shop displays, gift wrap, Christmas cards, and decorations. Holiday products packaged or decorated in red and green sell well thanks to nostalgic associations with Christmas.

Red is universally eye-catching and festive, making it effective for mass advertising campaigns. The bold brightness of red in Christmas decorations helps products stand out on crowded shelves. Extensive commercial promotion of red has strengthened its emotional and psychological ties to Christmas in modern times.


The tradition of red as a Christmas color comes from a blend of religious, cultural, and commercial sources. Saint Nicholas legends, Christian symbolism, pagan winter celebrations, and modern marketing have all played a role. While red diamonds and sleigh bells help sell the Christmas feeling, red also expresses spiritual meaning related to the heart of Christmas.

Meaning Connection to Red
Excitement, Passion Red evokes feelings of excitement and intensity
Love, Comfort Red symbolizes love, warmth, and affection
Christianity Red represents Jesus’ sacrifice and blood
Pagan Winter Celebrations Red had symbolic meaning in ancient pagan winter solstice traditions
Commercialization Retailers and marketers have heavily promoted red and green Christmas colors