Why is Christmas colour-coded as red and green? Who decided that everything from Santa and his elves to stockings and candles should be red?
If your answer is Coca-Cola then you’re not alone – but you’re not right either. Victorian perhaps? Wasn’t it the Victorians, along with Charles Dickens, who ‘invented’ the modern idea of Christmas complete with trees, presents and a bird on the table? Well recent research suggests the origins of this chromatic tradition are in fact far, far older. Dr Spike Bucklow from the University of Cambridge’s Hamilton Kerr Institute presented a piece at the Festival of Ideas called “Who Colour-Coded Christmas” where he put forward the theory that in fact the red and green colours come from medieval art of the 14th century onwards.
During Dr Bucklow’s research into medieval rood screens – the intricately carved and painted screens that separate the chancel and the nave in a church – he noticed that these screens were almost always painted predominantly in red and green. These screens, depicting saints and biblical events, would have been a huge investment paid for by the local community. “The panels were painted by newly settled members of the Flemish immigrant population or by itinerant English and continental European artists who worked together,” Dr Bucklow explained.
“Choosing red and green would have been a question of pigment availability but it would also have represented a tradition based on a consciously chosen symbolic meaning,” Dr Bucklow said in his presentation. “If you like, these colours would have been part of a common language of panel painting that everyone knew about but didn’t necessarily express.” For Dr Bucklow this symbolism, understood widely at the time and probably picked up again by Victorians restoring these ancient churches, was primarily about division. This, he suggests, was then used to celebrate the division of the year that Christmas – or rather, the winter solstice on which we celebrate Christmas – represents.
For further evidence he points out that on these screens the green pigment was usually a synthetic material made from copper, and the red often came from iron ore. In the Middle Ages colour pigment, as all colours, would have been imbued with meaning and some mystery. These metal pigments would not only have been expensive but also in themselves symbolic in a time when metallurgy and astronomy were closely connected – copper was associated with Venus, which is tied to love and the feminine, while iron was linked to Mars, the masculine, war, and fire.
It’s certainly a long way from the story that has become accepted as fact, that Coca-Cola invented the modern look and colours of Christmas in the 20th century. But that’s not to say there isn’t some truth in that too. In 1931 the American drinks manufacturer commissioned illustrator Haddon Sundblom to create an image of Santa with a bottle of Coke – the aim was to remind consumers that Coke wasn’t just a summer drink, and that even in the depths of winter everyone, even a stressed out Father Christmas, could enjoying a refreshing Coke. Taking inspiration from Clement Clark Moore’s 1822 poem “A Visit from St Nicholas” this was the first time that Santa had been represented in a warm and very human form. But the idea that his coat is red because that’s Coca-Cola’s brand colour… total myth.