How Red And Green Became The Colors Of Christmas

Dec 20, 2016
Originally published on December 21, 2016 12:07 pm

It's hard to imagine a time when red and green weren't synonymous with Christmas, but they haven't always been the holiday's go-to colors. Arielle Eckstut, co-author of Secret Language of Color, attributes the palette's rise to two things: holly and Coca-Cola.

"Holly has played a huge part in this red and green association," Eckstut tells NPR's Ari Shapiro. "And it dates back to winter solstice celebrations with the Romans, and maybe beyond. ... And also, holly is associated with the crown of thorns of Jesus. And just those beautiful bright red berries and those deep green leaves are the exact colors that we really come to think about when we think about Christmas"

But it took a while for red and green to rise to the top. Eckstut says Victorian Christmas cards used a lot of different palettes (red and green, red and blue, blue and green, blue and white) and they often put Santa in blue, green or red robes. All that changed in 1931.

"Coca-Cola hired an artist to create a Santa Claus," Eckstut says. "They had done this before, but this particular artist created a Santa Claus that we associate with the Santa Claus today in many ways: He was fat and jolly — whereas before he was often thin and elf-like — and he had red robes. ... 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 color of the Coke logo — this really took hold in American culture."

The artist was Haddon Sundblom, and his ads were such a hit that Coke continued working with him for decades.

Eckstut says, "It solidified in our collective imaginations the red of Santa's robes with the green of fir trees and holly and pointsettia that we already had in our minds. ... This particular shade of red and green came to signify Christmas."

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

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SHAPIRO: Put some mulled wine on the stove. String the lights. And grab everything red and green in your home, and throw it all over the walls, windows, door jambs. To tell us how red and green became the colors of Christmas, Arielle Eckstut is with us. She wrote the "Secret Language Of Color" and has been digging into the roots of this question just for us here at ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Welcome to the program.

ARIELLE ECKSTUT: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: When did we first see the association of red and green with Christmas?

ECKSTUT: I don't think we can identify a first because I think it's been a long journey that's a combination of the beauty of nature and the crassness of commerce coming together in a very long line.

SHAPIRO: Well, when you say the beauty of nature, I immediately think of holly with green leaves and red berries.

ECKSTUT: Absolutely. Holly has played a huge part in this red and green association, and it dates back to winter solstice celebrations with the Romans and maybe beyond all throughout time. And also, holly is associated with the crown of thorns of Jesus.

SHAPIRO: Oh.

ECKSTUT: So that has also played a part in the Christmas celebration. And just those beautiful bright red berries and those deep green leaves are the exact colors that we really come to think about when we think about Christmas.

We see it a lot also in Victorian Christmas decor. And the Victorians have been credited often with this red and green association. But if you go back and look at, for example, the Christmas cards of Victorians, you'll see a lot of different palates, not just red and green. You see...

SHAPIRO: Like, what else would you see?

ECKSTUT: You would see red and blue. You'd see blue and green. You'd see blue and white - so lots of different things. So it clearly wasn't set in stone.

SHAPIRO: So if the Victorian era brought us red and green as one of many Christmas color combinations...

ECKSTUT: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: ...How did it defeat all the other rivals?

ECKSTUT: OK, so I'd like to take you to 1931.

SHAPIRO: Let's go there.

ECKSTUT: OK (laughter). In 1931, Coca-Cola hired an artist to create a Santa Claus. They had done this before, but this particular artist created a Santa Claus that we associate with the Santa Claus today in many ways. He was fat and jolly, whereas before, he was often thin and elf-like. And he had red robes.

It wasn't the first time that Santa had red robes, but if you look at 19th century Santa, he's very often in blue or green. 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 coincidence - match the color of the Coke...

SHAPIRO: Coca-Cola.

ECKSTUT: ...logo (laughter).

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

ECKSTUT: So you know, this Christmas, when you're sitting with your family and listening to Christmas carols and having that mulled wine, you shouldn't be surprised if you have a strange and almost uncontrollable desire to go shopping and maybe even have a drink of coke.

SHAPIRO: Arielle Eckstut, author of the "Secret Language Of Color," thanks for the explanation.

ECKSTUT: Thanks so much. Have a colorful Christmas.

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