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The Multiple Origins of Christmas Red

A Christmas colour's origin story.

When most people think of Christmas, people think of trees, ornaments, lights, presents and other things all relating to Christmas. There is a relation to the colour red when it comes to Christmas. Red is used on everything; just how green can represent the greenery of nature that the pagans used in their first celebrations of Christmas which is still seen today.

Red has multiple meanings because the seasonal celebration takes from different traditions and cultures. This holiday uses the colour red in decorations like the holly berries and poinsettias and in public celebrations like Christmas mass. Red has been the colour of Christmas and it is self-evident why this colour has been used.

Winter Solstice Celebrations

Christmas originally was the celebration of the winter solstice. This was a time when people would prepare for winter and celebrate the harvest. Some cultures would try to fend off the cold and survive the season. It was particularly hard for northern countries with really cold temperatures. There were other types of celebrations that have similar winter solstice type celebrations like Yule from Scandinavia and Saturnalia from the Roman Empire.

The celebration was called Juul (Yuletide.) People burned Yule logs and bringing evergreens into their home. People would celebrate the life and death of nature during the darkest days of the year. They would dance, drink wassail, eat freshly slaughtered meat, and burn a Yule log for twelve days all indoors away from the cold. They would slaughter the animals for winter because it was easier for nourishment and survival to have one less animal to feed. During the time of Yule, people would decorate their homes with an evergreen tree, drape garlands and hang holly berries.

Saturnalia first celebrated as a farmer festival mark an end to the years’ harvest. The celebration of Saturnalia was a celebrated between December 17th – 23rd to honour the god of Saturn. Saturn’s name comes from the word status which meanings to sow. The festival grew in popularity that people started to exchange gifts, show merriment, and societal role-reversals. An example of the role reversal would be if a landowner paid for the month’s rent for their tenants. Many people exchanged gifts like dolls, caged animals and candles. Wine and ale would be everywhere. Many people celebrated Saturnalia drunk, possibly nude and dancing. They decorated the towns with red and purple ribbon dressed on trees.

‘During my week the serious is barred: no business allowed. Drinking and being drunk, noise and games of dice, appointing of kings and feasting of slaves, singing naked, clapping … an occasional ducking of corked faces in icy water – such are the functions over which I preside.’

From Saturnalia by the poet Lucian of Samosata (AD 120-180)

There was a similar celebration to Saturnalia called the festival Dies Natalis Solis Invicti which translates to ‘birthday of the unconquered sun.’ This was the Roman civic holiday that fell on the day December 25th to celebrate the cult of sol invicta (Unconquered Sun). This came from the plebeian Roman family Aurelia who prospered through the 3rd century to the late period of the Empire. But this could also have been based on Sol Elagablus which means the Syro-Roman sun god. Most scholars are still considering this fact, but it is still worth mentioning.

These were one of the most popular and jolliest celebrations on the calendar. Hollies and wine would be the most influential for red being used in decor during the holidays.

The Mass of Christ

The name of Christmas comes from the Mass of Christ. The mass service was to remember Jesus Christ and the gift of eternal life. The blood of Christ was in the red wine that metaphorical for his blood for mass. There were a lot of metaphorical imagery that is linked to this celebration.

The name was to disconnect the holiday and its customs from its pagan origins and establish the Christian church celebration. The traditions of Christmas have influences of Saturnalia and Yule with gift giving and the spread of merriment and joy. During the early days of Christmas, apples were hung off the branches of evergreen trees. These apples were the first type of ornaments for Christmas.

During the age of the Protestant Reformation in Christian churches between the 14th to 16th century, the celebration of winter solstice was being adopted by the church to celebrate. They first wanted to take a common tradition from the pagans to celebrate Jesus Christ. This period started a lot of the traditions and symbolism that is used in Christian masses and celebrations. Christmas became more of a serious celebration after the days of reform.

Modern Red in Christmas

Red is still continuously used in stories, decor and ambience. It was used in advertisements, tapestry, paintings, ornaments and decorations to celebrate the Christmas season. Holly berries and garlands were on book covers like T’was the Night Before Christmas and A Christmas Carol. Holly berries were used because it was a seasonal plant that appeared around Christmas.

A lot of Christmas traditions and Christmas roots were started during the 19th century also known as the Victorian era. Queen Victoria celebrating Christmas with a evergreen with hanging tinsel, decorated with nuts, fruit and sonetines with candles and toys. Many people were adopting more things from different cultures like the poinsettia plant originated from Mexico. During the 19th century, the popularity rose in the United States of America because it was a Mexican import. This is a red petal plant only meant for viewing that was brought over for Christmas decoration. There were also mistletoe plants that survived in popularity from the times of Yule and Old English celebrations. This plant also became more popular to decorate the home in the U.S.A.

Santa Claus and the Colour Red

Santa Claus influences many people around the world with holiday adverts for Christmas shopping. He was a 4th century Turkish saint who had a reputation of giving gifts to children and coins to the poor. He was depicted in churches in throughout Europe since the 11th century.

Saint Nicolas, the rough abbreviation of his name from Old Dutch is what we call him today – Sinterklaas. Often depicted handing out gifts to reward children with his politically incorrect helper Zwarte Pete (Black Pete.)

Santa Claus was closely associated with Christmas since the early years of celebration; even known to be called “Old Father Christmas.” His legend turned into folklore. There are a lot of the associations that stayed in modern culture like mischievous helpers looking out for who was naughty or nice, being on top of rooftops and carrying a tall staff. His appearance was to be similar to the Old English God Woden, the leader of the Wild Hunt with their long beard and old age.

He was first drawn by Washington Irving in the 1823 poem A Visit from St. Nicholas known as The Night Before Christmas. The early publication spots featured Santa Claus in a dull beige coat.

He was drawn as war propaganda by Thomas Nast in the 1860’s, in his signature red coat. The original illustration was to memorialize the family sacrifices of the Union during the early darkest days of the Civil War. It was a centerfold in the Christmas Eve issuefor Harper’s Weekly Magazine in 1862. The illustration was of Santa Claus distributing presents at a Union Army Camp. Partially dressed in army gear with a green backpack and sword. He characterized Santa Claus has a jolly, rotund man in a red coat. The red coat with the black buckle and fur lining was based on the English tradition of Father Christmas.

He was used to incite the government for higher pay for enlisted military men. It was the reason why he is holding a Trojan horse to symbolize treachery of the government. And a pocket watch close to midnight to show that the government has little time left to give fair wages to men in the Army and Navy. The second illustration of Santa Claus was him in his sleigh going down a chimney. The illustration is divided into two perspectives of a woman praying and a solider leaning on a tree. Thomas Nast’s work is still influential today illustrating the popular depictions of the American political donkey and elephant representing the republican party and democratic party, the popularized female depiction of Columbia representing the U.S.A. and one of the popularized depiction of Uncle Sam representing the U.S. federal government. His illustrations were so popular worldwide that it helped identify runaway Democratic Representative Boss Tweed in Spain. Thomas Nast was an American cartoonist who is known for being the “Father of American Cartoon” within his 25-year career.

Santa Claus was universally changed to red and white to unify this fictional character has one “person.” Many other illustrators have created artwork of Santa Claus for commercial use. Before Santa Claus was often seen as in a beige coat or a green coat.

Santa Claus is also known for the advertisements by Coca-Cola. In the advertisement that first used Santa Claus’ image for profitable gain had a department store Santa Claus sit down drinking a bottle of Coca-Cola. This was painted by Fred Mizen in December 1930 for the Saturday Evening Post. The following year an advertising agency, D’Arcy Advertising Agency, wanted Santa Claus to look realistic and symbolic. They hired Haddon Sundblom to develop an advertisement that had the warm and fuzzy feeling of the holiday season. He used the Clement Clark Moore’s 1822 poem “T’was the Night Before Christmas” has inspiration. The advertisement was first used in many magazines like the New Yorker, the Saturday Evening Post, Ladies Home Journal and the National Geographic in 1931. The red coat colour used the colour of his coat was carried over from other publications that used the same colour. This marked the use of a gift giving saint with a brand for Christmas that was used annually from 1931 to 1964.

Other companies over the years have used the image of Santa Claus in advertisements since the 1900s to now too like Macy’s, Sears Roebuck, Eaton’s, M&M’s, Jello, Kodak Camera, Got Milk? and Reddi-Wip. Even the Fashion Santa at Yorkdale Mall has a red coat with a long trimmed beard, just a fitter Santa.

IMG_HaddonS-CocaCola-1931

The use of red in Christmas continued with the commercialization of the holiday. More elements related to Christmas like garlands, hollies, ornaments, lights, wrapping paper, ribbons, velour, toys, plushes and the media constantly using the colour, red will never fade away from Christmas. Depending on how Christmas is interrupted, red can be for whatever you need it to be to connect you to the holiday season and spirit.


Resources:

History Channel-The Real Story of Christmas-Full Documentary
History Today – Did the Romans Invent Christmas?
Ancient History Encyclopedia – Saturnalia
Encyclopedia Britannica – Reformation

1 comment on “The Multiple Origins of Christmas Red

  1. Have a Merry Christmas. Use should check out Gerry Bowler’s books on Christmas. The World Encyclopaedia of Christmas, Santa Claus: A Biography, and Christmas in the Crosshairs.

    Liked by 1 person

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