Say “Christmas colors” and instantly red and green come to mind. The color combination is so ingrained in our culture that you might be surprised to learn that we can’t easily pinpoint exactly how red and green became the colors of our most celebrated holiday.
There are many colorful theories. Did this color connection begin with the shiny green leaves and bright red berries of a sprig of holly? Since red and green are the only bright colors that seem to survive in nature when temperatures plummet it’s a good thought but holly is not why we link red and green to Christmas. How do we know?
Long before sprigs of holly were used to celebrate the birth of Christ, mistletoe was used to decorate. Eventually holly replaced mistletoe as a symbol of Christmas, but why would anyone want to replace mistletoe?
It seems that as far back as 200 B.C. mistletoe was used by the Druids to celebrate the coming of winter. When congregation members began using mistletoe as Christmas decoration church fathers suggested that sprigs of holly would be a more appropriate adornment.
Many people 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.
The poinsettia is native to Mexico where its yellow flower surrounded by bright red 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. Poinsettias may be considered the flower of Christmas but they aren’t the reason we think red and green because by this time these colors were already a part of the holiday tradition.
I think the most likely root of red and green tradition dates back to the 1300s when on each December 24 churches presented a Paradise Play depicting the story of Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden.
Since you can’t really 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 began with the red apples but other decorations were added and the Christmas tree was born.
The idea spread and both Christmas trees and the color combination of red and green were well on the way to becoming official symbols of the Christmas holiday. As you decorate with the colors of the season you are connecting with many centuries of people before you who used red and green to symbolize this joyous season.