A 1942 illustration by Haddon Sundblom, for a decades-long Coca-Cola ad campaign that helped establish Santa's familiar red costume
With the city festooned in red and green for the holiday season, it seemed like an appropriate time to wonder how these colors came to be associated with Christmas, how blue and white became the official colors of Hanukkah, and what symbolism black, green and red have at Kwanzaa-time.
Christmas Colors: Red and Green
Last week we looked at the historical origins of the Christmas tree and, sure enough, the Christmastime significance of the color green is partly related to the evergreen tree, seen as a symbol of Christ’s resurrection and eternal life. As for the combination of green and red (image 2), there are a couple theories.
One idea is that the colors are related to the props of the Christmas “mystery plays,” which were popular theatrical adaptations of Biblical stories and themes performed in medieval Europe. On December 24th each year, it was traditional to perform the Paradise play, the story of the Fall of Adam and Eve from Eden. To perform this play, obviously one would need an apple tree — not so easy to come by in the European winter — so they would use a branch of a fir tree and hang it with apples. This became a popular seasonal decoration in Germany (even after the mystery plays were banned by the Church for some questionable moral content), paving the way for both the decorated Christmas tree and the association of the colors red and green with Christmastime.
We also see red and green in wintertime flora. Popular in Europe, holly is an evergreen plant with red berries that emerge in winter. Its sharply pointed leaves have been used to reference Christ’s crown of thorns, while the berries have been said to represent the blood Christ spilled on the cross. Holly was incorporated in public Christmas decoration in Europe (along with ivy, fir and other evergreens) since the Middle Ages. Poinsettias are a later red and green addition to the Christmas tradition, part of Mexican Christmas celebrations since the 17th century, and first brought to the US in 1826 by Joel Poinsett, Ambassador to Mexico.
Santa Claus’s red suit is another recent entry to the Christmas color chart. A combination of popular legends about Saint Nicholas (Sinterklaas in Dutch), Father Christmas, the Norse god Odin, and the gift-giving Christ child (Christkindl in German lands, which became Kris Kringle in America), Santa Claus became a popular, jolly bringer of gifts to Western children in the last two centuries. His now standard appearance — rotund belly, white beard, red fur-trimmed suit — was largely the contribution of cartoonist Thomas Nast, who produced an annual Santa illustration for the cover of Harper’s Weekly beginning in 1863 (image 3). At first, Nast gave Santa a tan suit, but he soon switched to red. (Nast’s Santa was based in part on early illustrations of Father Christmas, often portrayed in green robes trimmed with white fur.) Nast’s red-clad Santa quickly became iconic, especially after various corporations like Coca-Cola appropriated the image for their advertisements beginning in the 1930s (image 4).
Hanukkah Colors: Blue and White
The obvious explanation for the association of blue and white with Hanukkah (image 5) is that these are the colors on the Israeli flag. Indeed, these national colors are especially meaningful during Hanukkah because the holiday commemorates the Jewish victory against the Seleucid King Antiochus in the 2nd century BCE, in which the Jews revolted against the outlawing of their religious practice and the occupation of their Temple.
But there is a reason why the flag is blue and white — these colors have deep resonance within the Jewish tradition. The Jewish prayer shawl, or tallit (pronounced ta-LEET), is described in the Book of Numbers as having one thread dyed with a certain kind of blue (tekhelet) and three threads of white among the fringe at the corners (image). A rabbinical interpretation of this directive is that tekhelet blue is the color of heaven and of divine revelation. In the time of the Israelites, tekhelet dye was made from a kind of snail, and was used by the upper classes as dye for clothing and vestments. Perhaps by stipulating the use of this expensive and rarefied dye, even in such a tiny quantity as for four corner threads, the tallit was granted special status. White was the other color because of its symbolic associations with purity and cleanliness (important parts of the Sabbath, of course). Early members of the Zionist movement explicitly wanted to echo the aesthetic of the tallit in designing the Israeli flag, and ultimately settled on the blue and white design we know today. This design, in turn, has influenced how Jews decorate for holidays, since until the 20th century, the main decoration for Hanukkah would have been a beautiful metalwork Hanukkah lamp, or menorah (image 6).
Kwanzaa Colors: Black, Red and Green
Kwanzaa is a recent holiday, begun in 1966 as a celebration of African-American heritage. Taking its ideas from traditional African cultures, Kwanzaa emphasizes values like togetherness, creativity, self-determination and faith. The colors green, red and black have specific associations: green suggests both the land of Africa and hope for the future; black refers to the skin color of the African people, and red signifies the blood of African ancestors, shed in violence for the liberation of the generations. These colors resonate with the vibrant traditional African textiles used in the Kwanzaa celebration. Red, green and black were also appropriated by Marcus Garvey’s Black Nationalist movement.
During the seven days of Kwanzaa, celebrants light one new candle per day (image 7), three red, one black and three green, each one representing a different value, that then gets discussed. There are other symbols as well: fruits and vegetables, to represent the harvest; an African straw placemat, to recall traditional crafts; an ear of corn, representing fertility and reproduction; the kinara, or candleholder, symbolizing the ancestors; the unity cup; and gifts, given to children to reward achievement and growth.
Whatever you are celebrating this winter (why not go for the trifecta?), have a wonderful holiday, and warm yourself in the glow of knowledge of the history of your own traditions.
Images: 1 Hanukkah image (with ivory and olive instead of white and blue, but STILL) from Martha Stewart's channel on food.yahoo.com, Christmas image from christmasgeek.com, Kwanzaa image from Fullerton college's website; 2 A traditional Christmas tabletop from Martha Stewart; 3 Thomas Nast's 1863 illustration of Santa Claus from pennlive.com; 4 Haddon Sundblom's 1942 advertisement for Coca-Cola, spreading the image of Nast's red-clad Santa far and wide, from a neat history section of Coke's website; 5 Blue and white Hanukkah decorations from Martha Stewart; 6 A Hanukkah lamp, or menorah, cast from a copper alloy, from the second half of the 18th century, most likely from Eastern Galicia or Western Ukraine, in the collection of the Jewish Museum, New York; 7 Symbols of Kwanzaa, photo by Tom Wilson from Getty Images.