Most of the trappings of a modern-day Christmas—from Advent calendars to stockings hung by the chimney with care—are, themselves, relatively modern. But the ubiquitous red-and-green colour scheme that dominates this time of year? That has roots stretching as far back as the 13th century, according to Spike Bucklow of the Hamilton Kerr Institute, the conservation branch of the University of Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum.
Bucklow, a research scientist with a focus on the history of artists’ materials, did not set out to unravel the mysteries of Christmas decorations. Rather, he was working to conserve a particular type of artwork known as the rood screen—a common architectural element in medieval churches that divided the nave (where the congregation gathered) from the choir or chancel (where the clergy sat). Often, these were richly painted or carved. Depending on the wealth of the congregation that commissioned them, rood screens could feature anything from a simple pattern to a highly detailed depiction of local saints.
Today, rood screens are quite rare. Like other ornate works of religious art, many were destroyed when the frenzied tide of Reformation that swept Europe in the 16th century. But eastern England, where Bucklow is based, happens to boast the highest concentration of extant rood screens in northern Europe.
As he embarked upon his research, he began to notice a pattern—that red and green featured prominently in a vast majority of the screens. “After a while, I was quite surprised that those colours were repeated so often,” Bucklow notes. Although he was not the first to notice the frequency of this colour scheme, he was the first to speculate why this was the case.
Red and green’s significance depended on the medieval viewer’s intimate understanding of artists’ materials at that time. Most people use smartphones and computers whose inner workings are a total mystery to them, Bucklow says. “But that is a relatively new phenomenon. Up to the 17th century, people understood most of the cultural artefacts that they saw.”
When it came to paintings (such as those decorating the rood screens), viewers knew what materials had been used to create the different colours of paint. Red was derived from iron, while green came from copper. During medieval times, these metals were associated with planets—Mars and Venus, respectively.
And these associations went further. The planet Mars got its name from the Roman god of war, Venus from the goddess of love. In poetry, says Bucklow, Mars is typically described as red, while Venus is often pictured rising out of the green sea. In essence, pairing these colours “sets up the idea of duality: male and female, love and war, that kind of stuff,” he continues. Since rood screens were positioned between the lay people and the clergy, they offered a physical representation of the transition from a profane space to a sacred one. A palette of red and green, Bucklow theorizes, may have been a way to emphasize this duality.
Furthermore, these shades were gendered: Red for men and green for women. According to Bucklow, however, the church didn’t want the rood screens—, which could also be viewed symbolically as a sort of doorway to heaven—to privilege one sex over the other. “That’s the same in lots of religious texts about the equality of access to heaven,” he notes. So the decorative schemes mixed red and green in asymmetric arrangements, never emphasizing one over the other.
By the late Renaissance, however, rood screens had fallen out of favour. Newer churches were built by architects who preferred an uninterrupted view through the building, and by 1800, the screens had become obsolete. It was not until the late 19th century, with the Gothic Revival of the Victorian era that these medieval artworks returned to the public eye.
“For us, the red and green of Christmas is a Victorian invention,” says Bucklow. “But why did the Victorians choose red and green? It is because they were suddenly discovering these rood screens, all of which were red and green. So for them, red and green was a rediscovery of Christianity in general.”
Of course, the story does not end there—although the Victorians reintroduced the colour scheme, it was not the only one on the market at the time. “If you go back and look at, for example, the Christmas cards of Victorians, you’ll see a lot of different palettes, not just red and green,” Arielle Eckstut, co-author of The Secret Language of Colour, told NPR last holiday season. Other combinations included blue and green, red and blue, and blue and white.
It took another century and a beverage-industry titan to fully cement the current colour combination. In 1931, Coca-Cola hired illustrator Haddon Sundblom to create a new version of Santa Claus for its advertisements. This one was “fat and jolly,” rather than “thin and elf-like,” noted Eckstut. And rather than blue, green, or even white robes, this Santa wore red. “And so the fact that all these things came together—this friendly, fat Santa in these bright red robes, which, I don’t think is a coincidence, match the colour of the Coke logo—this really took hold in American culture,” Eckstut said.
Coca-Cola may be the final piece in this particular holiday puzzle. But the groundwork was laid centuries ago, in the ornately decorated churches of medieval Europe. So as you deck the halls in holly red and mistletoe green, thank astrology. The colours of Christmas, as it turns out, had their beginnings in the stars.