Have you thrown in the pre-holiday productivity towel yet? Here’s hoping you’re already lolling over an eggnog, tending to that urgent gift-wrap origami. If not, we humbly offer a tantalizingly holiday-themed distraction for you to read furtively whenever the boss isn’t swanning by your desk. After all, it’s educational and season-appropriate to ask: where do the winter holidays’ color schemes come from?
Let’s start with the 800-pound gorilla of winter celebrations, Christmas. This voracious holiday nibbles an increasingly larger swath of the calendar every year, now encompassing the turkey-soaked evening after Thanksgiving dinner all the way up to New Year’s Day. So where does this blizzard of red and green—visual bunting for a six-week-long season—come from? As usual, the history is packed with as much apocrypha as fact, but both are satisfyingly interesting.
The red-green palette started, apparently, with medieval European “mystery plays,” traveling bands of Biblical wonder designed to amp up religious fervor before Christmas. December 24th’s mystery play culminated in the Adam-and-Eve story, a tale calling for copious backdrops of greenery (the Garden of Eden) and sinful red apples (for the Fall). An evergreen fir branch bedecked with red apples fitted the chromatic bill nicely.
Then there’s wintertime flora like holly, whose red berries stand out like points of crucified blood against the crisp thorns of holly’s waxy green leaves. Unsurprisingly, medieval Europe favored holly, ivy, and other evergreens for their chromatic symbolism and merry aspect. Poinsettias, meanwhile, hail from points well south of Europe. They featured in Mexican Christmas traditions since the 17th century and landed in the U.S. in 1826, thanks to Joel Poinsett, then the U.S. ambassador to Mexico.
What about Santa’s red suit, you ask? For that we can thank the whim of the cartoonist Thomas Nast, who illustrated Santa for the Christmas issues of Harper’s Weekly starting in 1863. (One of his glorious illustrations opens this post.) Early on, he dressed Santa in earthy tan, but he later switched to red for reasons unexplained but not hard to fathom. Coca-Cola advertisements in the 1930s crystallized this popular conception of Santa bedizened in Coke red. So thoroughly, in fact, is Santa’s cherry-red suit burned in our brains that it’s hard to grok the idea that as Father Christmas or, variously, King Winter in the Carolingian period onward, the jolly old elf wore green, to symbolize the creeping return of spring. (The BBC traces this lineage in “Father Christmas, green or red?”)
Next comes Hanukkah, a holiday I’ve always rooted for. It celebrates the Jewish victory against the Seleucid King Antiochus in the 2nd century B.C. Antiochus drove the Jews to revolt by outlawing their religious practice and occupying their temple. When the revolt succeeded and the Maccabean Jews reclaimed their house of worship, the temple had to be cleansed and re-dedicated before worship could continue there. A scanty supply of blessed olive oil, meant to keep the temple lights burning for one night, stretched to eight nights—sufficient time for the Jews to press fresh oil and remove the many pollutions from the temple.
Hanukkah’s colors stem officially from the colors of the Israeli flag. Traditional Jewish prayer shawels, tallit, end in tassels comprised of blue threads dyed with a precious blue, tekhelet, interwoven with white threads. Jews are instructed in the Bible to meditate on the blue, reminiscent of the heavens where God dwells. Or as the Zionist poet Ludwig August Frankl described blue and white his 1864 poem “Judah’s Colors,” “When sublime feelings his heart fill, he is mantled in the colors of his country… Blue and white are the colors of Judah; white is the radiance of the priesthood, and blue, the splendors of the firmament.”
Given that silver is a flashier, more brilliantly wintry version of white, it’s a fitting companion to blue to celebrate Hanukkah. (Hat tip to Mental Floss for a great summary of Hanukkah’s origins.)
What about Kwanzaa? Created in 1966 as an African-American heritage celebration, Kwanzaa is sometimes belittled for its status as an “invented” holiday. I’ll defend Kwanzaa stoutly by askin this: What cherished holiday doesn’t get invented, and reinvented, by each new generation? Kwanzaa scores further points for its overtly secular values, emphasizing togetherness, creativity, self-determination, and faith as its participants understand it. Kwanzaa’s green symbolizes Africa’s greenery, plus hope for its future and that of its descendants. The red, unsurprisingly, represents the blood of African ancestors shed to liberate present generations. The black represents the skin of Africans past and present.
Here’s another clever aspect of Kwanzaa: while its color palette appropriates Christmas’s red and green, one of its chief rituals—the lighting of the kinara, the candelabra representing the ancestors—resonates with the Hanukkah ritual of lighting the menorah.
Winter holidays abound. Researching the Big Holiday Three took me down several chromatic byways, revealing wintry celebrations and how each colors the wan winter months with a splash of brighter feeling. Take the Christmas spinoff in Oaxaca, Mexico, Noche de Rábanos or Night of the Radishes. Celebrated on December 23, this deliciously offbeat festival involves ornately carving radishes into competing tableaux of various kinds: nativity scenes, the martyrdom of saints, and other folklore tales. It colors Christmas a particular hue: the hot-pink of radish skins, offset by the faint green tinge of their exposed flesh.
Another delicately pale holiday color palette belongs to Dongzhi, the Chinese winter solstice festival. Celebrated on the shortest day of the year—December 21 or 22—Dongzhi urges people to eat up to face the bitter winter, emphasizing tonic foods like ginger duck hot put and festive dumplings made of glutinous rice, tangyuan. Tangyuan are often tinted various pastel shades and floated in a steamy broth; somewhat whimsically, they can be stuck to the backs of doors, windows, and chairs to ward off evil spirits. Uncannily, the colors of Dongzhi tangyuan echo the soft tints of Night of the Radishes: a galaxy of pinks, spring greens, and pale white.
Finally, yet another winter holiday that blushes pinkly is the Iranian feast of Yalda. Also celebrated on the winter solstice, Yalda marks the birth of the Persian angel Mithra, herald of light and truth, born (in a fitting irony) on the darkest night of the year. The 13th-century Persian poet Sa’di wrote, “The true morning will not come, until the Yalda Night is gone.”
At Yalda, families sit around korsi, short-legged wooden tables covered in wool blankets. Underneath the blankets courses a delectable warmth generated by a gas heater tucked within, while the tabletop is heaped with rose-colored, summery foods: pomegranate, watermelon, nuts, and dried fruits. Yalda’s foods are also hemmed around with delightful regional superstitions: for instance, in Khorasan it’s believed that eating carrots, pears, pomegranates, and green olives protects you against insect bites, and particularly scorpion stings. (Mixing camel fat and mare’s milk and burning creates a similarly protective smoke.) Eating garlic at Yalda wards off pain in the joints, while whispering into a donkey’s ear supposedly guarantees a cure to any ailment.
Happy Night of the Radishes, Yalda, Dongzhi ,and Festivus to you all! May whatever you’re celebrating burst with the colors that most tickle you.
Thanks to Apartment Therapy for nicely summarizing many of the facts listed above.
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