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Why are red and green the colors of Christmas?

The colors red and green have become iconic symbols of Christmas in many cultures around the world. But why exactly are these two shades so strongly associated with the holiday season? The meanings behind red and green connect to multiple aspects of Christmas, from religious symbolism to pagan traditions. Understanding the history and origins of these colors can illuminate why they remain ubiquitous in Christmas celebrations today.

The Religious Symbolism of Red and Green

For Christians, red and green are strongly tied to the religious meaning of Christmas as the celebration of Jesus’ birth. Red symbolizes the blood of Christ, while green represents life and rebirth. This symbolism stems from ancient interpretations of these colors:

  • Red: In Biblical times, red dye was costly and associated with royalty, power, and prestige. As a result, red took on connotations of divinity and sacrifice in Christian symbolism. The color represents the blood of martyrs and of Christ’s death on the cross.
  • Green: In the Bible, green is the color of grass, vegetation, and trees. It symbolizes life, nature, and fertility. For Christians, green took on the meaning of eternal life or rebirth in Christ.

During Advent and Christmastime, red and green thus came to express two fundamental aspects of Christian belief in Jesus’ birth. Red symbolizes Christ’s crucifixion and shedding of blood for humanity’s sins, while green represents the new life promised by Christ’s birth and resurrection.

The Influence of Holly and Ivy

Plants like holly and ivy that stay green year-round or bear fruit in winter played a key role in establishing red and green as characteristic Christmas colors. Before Christianity took hold in Europe, plants that thrived in winter symbolized life amidst the forces of decay and dormancy. When Christian meanings became associated with plants like holly, ivy, and mistletoe, red and green took on religious symbolism:

  • Holly: Its prickly edges symbolized Christ’s crown of thorns, while its red berries represented his blood. The persistent green leaves signified eternal life.
  • Ivy: Its evergreen vines and leaves represented immortality, rebirth, and renewal.
  • Mistletoe: In some cultures, it was seen as a sacred plant of peace and joy. Its white berries signified purity.

As these winter plants became Christmas decorations, the green leaves and red fruits or berries reinforced the religious symbolism of the colors green and red.

The Use of Red and Green in Pagan Winter Rituals

For cultures that observed winter solstice festivals and rituals before Christianity, red and green also had symbolic meaning:

  • In Roman traditions like Saturnalia, red symbolized light, warmth, and joy to counter the darkness and cold of winter.
  • Green represented the promise of returning vegetation and fertility in spring after the barren winter months.
  • Decorating with evergreens like holly was believed to bring back the green plants of summer.
  • Red fruits and berries represented the promise of returning abundance in the new year.

When Northern European cultures like the Germans began adopting Christianity, these preexisting associations of red and green with winter solstice celebrations blended with the new Christian symbolism of the colors.

St. Nicholas and Christmas Red

The figure of St. Nicholas plays a key role in anchoring red as a Christmas color. St. Nicholas served as the basis for Santa Claus, and his red robes and bishops’ attire arguably made the color more central to Christmas:

  • St. Nicholas was a 4th-century Greek Christian bishop in Myra known for gifts to the poor, including secret gift-giving to children.
  • He became a patron saint of many groups, including children, sailors, merchants, and the poor.
  • In European iconography, St. Nicholas was often depicted wearing red robes and a red bishops’ hat.
  • As legends of St. Nicholas transformed into the lore of Santa Claus, red clothing and hats signified his bishop legacy.

With this association of Santa Claus with the color red, red garments, decorative materials, and other red motifs naturally made their way into Christmas festivities and gift-giving traditions.

Commercial Advertising in the 19th and 20th Centuries

In the 1800s and 1900s, commercial advertisers capitalized on established Christmas colors and meanings:

  • Santa Claus was depicted in Coca Cola advertisements wearing red and green, drawing on traditional associations.
  • Retailers used red and green in promotions to evoke the cheer, abundance, and gift-giving spirit of the holidays.
  • Christmas products appeared in red and green packaging, from cards and candies to decorations and toys.
  • Popular media like magazines, films, and cartoons adopted red and green motifs in Christmas imagery.

As a result, red and green saturated the commercial and popular landscape of Christmas. Branding trends reinforced the symbolic meanings and boosted public association of the two colors with the holiday.

Psychological Associations with Red and Green

Psychology provides some additional insight into why red and green make natural complements as Christmas colors:

  • Red is associated with warmth, cheer, excitement, and stimulation. Connected to our strongest emotions, it captures the spirited joy of gift-giving, Christmas cheer, feasting, and family togetherness.
  • Green represents nature, harmony, renewal, and peace. It balances the intensity of red with calmness and tranquility.

With red’s energy and green’s serenity, the two colors aptly express the dual facets of Christmas moods and activities – the exuberant gatherings with loved ones alongside quiet moments of reflection on the meaning of the season.


Red and green clearly have deep enduring ties to Christmas. Their meaning can be traced to multiple origins – Christian religious symbolism, pre-Christian pagan winter traditions, legends of St. Nicholas, and modern commercial promotion. Psychology also provides clues to why these two particular colors complement one another so well in capturing the Christmas spirit. With such extensive historical, cultural, and psychological associations built up over centuries, red and green look poised to remain the quintessential colors of Christmas into the future.

Color Symbolism Associations
Red Blood of Christ, martyrdom, sacrifice, divine love
Warmth, cheer, stimulation
Santa Claus robes, Christmas decorations, gift ribbons
Green Life, rebirth, spring, eternity, tranquility Evergreen trees and wreaths, holly leaves

The colors red and green have strong symbolic meanings related to Christmas. Red represents the blood of Christ and sacrifice, as well as warmth, excitement, and cheer. Green symbolizes life, rebirth, and tranquility. These meanings are reflected in Christmas associations – Santa’s red suit, holly wreaths, green trees, red gift bows, and more. The table summarizes the key symbolic associations with red and green tied to Christmas.

In many nations around the world, the colors red and green are iconically linked to Christmas. But why are these particular shades so strongly associated with the holiday season? The meanings and origins of red and green illuminate their enduring connection to Christmas.

For Christians, red and green hold religious symbolism related to Jesus’ birth. Red represents Christ’s blood shed for salvation, while green signifies life and renewal in Christ. Ancient interpretations of these colors established them as spiritual symbols in Biblical times. Red held connotations of divinity and sacrifice, while green represented fertility and life.

Plants that stay green or bear fruit in winter, like holly, ivy, and mistletoe, also reinforce the meanings of red and green. Their leaves and red berries took on Christian symbolism – prickly holly signified Christ’s crown of thorns, ivy represented eternal life, and mistletoe stood for peace. As they became Christmas decorations, these plants further anchored red and green as holiday colors.

Pagan winter solstice customs also link red and green to the Christmas season. Green signified the return of vegetation in spring, while red symbolized light, warmth, and life during the barren winter. Decorating with evergreens and fruits in midwinter rituals promised renewed fertility and abundance.

The legend of St. Nicholas, with his red bishop’s robes and hat, cemented red as a Christmas color. As St. Nicholas evolved into Santa Claus, red clothing and Christmas motifs signified his legacy. Advertisers capitalized on these associations in the 1800s and 1900s, using red and green to evoke Christmas cheer and generosity.

On a psychological level, red and green represent contrasting facets of the holiday – red captures excitement and intensity, while green signifies tranquility and renewal. Together, they express the spirit of Christmas celebrations and reflections.

With layers of meaning developed over centuries, red and green have become inextricably linked to Christmas. Their origins and histories reveal why these colors so fittingly represent the holiday each year.