If you thought Christmas was only celebrated in a big way in the United States, I discovered that it’s just as popular in other parts of the world. From public places to private homes, people start decorating as early as November. It’s not surprising to see holiday merchandise bursting off store shelves as early as October, with people searching for perfect gifts all year round.
Last month I traveled to Japan. I visited Roppongi, which is an upscale area of downtown Tokyo. There were beautiful Christmas decorations everywhere, glistening red and gold lights hanging from the trees, festively decking both sides of the street with glowing cheer. In the background, the landmark Tokyo Tower was wrapped with lights shining like a beacon throughout the night. I will never forget this amazing view filled with pulsating holiday colors.
I love using the traditional Christmas colors of red, green, gold and white in my silk designs, not just for the holidays, but because of what they symbolize.
But, why is it that, every year we faithfully bedeck our homes in red, green and gold? It’s a tradition ingrained in our culture, but who color-coded this holiday and why?
Few color combinations evoke such strong and immediate associations as “Christmas colors.” Red and green were chosen to represent dichotomies, expressing the distinction between secular and spiritual, turning from old to new, fire and water, male and female.
These universally accepted colors representing the season have a long history rooted in both medieval paganism as well as Christianity. In most cultures, green represents life, nature, peace, eternity and hope of the future. The practice of bringing greenery inside a home helped affirm and remind that they would survive another harsh winter. Palm branches in Egypt, an evergreen tree in Germany and green garlands strung across a fireplace mantle in Vermont are just a few ways this vibrant color offered the promise of spring’s arrival.
Early Christians added a spiritual emphasis to the season using red as a sacred color symbolizing Christ’s life of selfless love and ultimate sacrificial death. The red holly berries represented his blood on the cross; the red robes worn by bishops became Santa’s uniform as well. Poinsettia flowers that bloom bright red every winter, and Rudolph’s red nose all reflect the religious meaning of the holiday.
Although red and green remain the most common colors of Christmas, gold also has an important place in the festivities. Gold symbolizes one of the gifts brought by the magi to the Christ child as well as the star that led them from the East. This warm, rich color is found in every crackling fireplace and flickering candle. Gold is the color of sun and light, important reminders of hope during the dark winter season.
Cultures of the past attributed greater meaning to colors than we do now. For example, up to the year 500, if a “commoner” wore purple in Eastern Europe or Western Asia, they could be executed since it was reserved only for royalty.
It’s difficult to relate since we are so free with color now, but color meanings were known and accepted by everyone until the 17th century when Newton explained the world scientifically.
What if we could once more consciously feel the significance attached to color?
We live in a world filled with constant color stimulation. We are exposed to magnificent color that bombards us every minute on the media, so there’s not much contrast from a drab, colorless existence to excite us any longer. In some ways our world is richer; in other ways, it’s poorer.
Colors may never speak as loudly as they did in olden times, but we can at least try to hear the message sent by the red, green and gold of our holiday season: This year is ending, but the promise of another is being born.
Wishing you and yours a joyous holiday filled with vibrant colors of peace and hope!