Monday, December 17, 2012

Why are Red and Green Christmas Colors? Part 2

In yesterday's post,
I wrote about different theories that attempt to explain
how red and green became traditional Christmas colors.
And from Sanskrit body chakras to evergreens with red berries or apples,
the ideas are wildly varied.

photo courtesy of

But I ran across a very interesting article called "Who Colour-Coded Christmas":
This was published by the University of Cambridge in October 2011.
A research scientist at Cambridge, Dr. Spike Bucklow,
says that red and green for Christmas
dates well back to the Middle Ages, and probably even further back.
He points out that the Victorians started many Christmas observances,
but they also resurrected long-held traditions of Christmas,
including the motif of red and green.

Bucklow came up with his theory after studying medieval rood screens,
wooden screens spanning the width of old churches
in order to separate the congregation from the priests and dignitaries on the altar.
These rood screens, "rood" an archaic term for a cross, 
which was always affixed to the screen, 
 were  often painted with vivid images of saints or church patrons.
More commonly, they were painted green on one side and red on the other
to mark the boundary between the narthex and the chancel.
He says that the choice of these two colors was deliberate
because each expressed a powerful symbolism.

My curiosity was piqued by his research, 
so I went on the internet and found this site: 
 a virtual museum called WebExhibits: Pigments through the Ages.

According to the web site, 
green represents rebirth, regrowth, and hope in many cultures. 
However, some cultures consider green a symbol for death.
The Egyptian god Osiris, the god of death and the afterlife, 
was often depicted as a green-skinned person.
And in the 15th century, the devil was also often described as green. 
WebExhibits says it is because green was a friendly, pleasant color,
attractive to animals and therefore the source of "hunter green";
the devil appeared thus to lure his human prey.

On the other hand, red expresses life and passion.
WebExhibits says the ancient Egyptians 
colored their skin with red ochre as a sign of vitality.
It also says that the Egyptian god Seth [Set]
was depicted as having red hair and eyes,
and depending on the context, either symbolizing victory or destruction
 after his having killed the green-skinned Osiris.

Could this historic symbolism for red and green, 
this kind of a yin and yang balance,
be the two opposites that those in the medieval period 
used to mark the spiritual boundary 
between life and death, beginnings and endings?
And if so, how old is this red-green nexus in Western culure?

photo courtesy of

Dr. Bucklow says that the use of red and green to mark a boundary line
goes back much further than the Middle Ages;
 he cites a reference in the 13th-century Mabinogion,
a collection of Welsh stories that are based on pre-Celtic oral traditions.
In one, the hero comes upon a tree, half-red and half-green,
that marked the boundary between two lands.

photo courtesy of

Bucklow surmises that the Victorians recognized red and green 
as symbolically marking
the boundary between the old and new year.
Dr. Bucklow published a book about his color theories in 2009:
The Alchemy of Paint: Art, Science, and Secrets from the Middle Ages,
available through many booksellers.
I'd love to read it to see his evidence.
Until then, red and green will have to remain one of those marvelous mysteries.

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