With Christmas fast approaching, we inevitably start to think about decorations, subconsciously veering towards red and green when the weather turns frosty. It cannot be helped…they are simply the standards we’ve been raised on. We were given red and green construction paper in kindergarten to craft paper garland chains. Our stockings that hung by the fire were red, green or a festive combination of the two. Santa wears red, his elves green. One wonders how we’ve been reduced to these two contrasting colors heralding the commercial holiday season; it’s not as if little baby Jesus was swaddled in red and green diapers or the Three Kings brought him the Christmas Mix bag of M&Ms.
After a brief amount of “Googling”, I dug up some of the MANY theories of redgreen Christmas culture. Some will tell you how green stands for life and red for the blood of Christ, reminding us of his sacrifice for humanity, if you want to buy into this Christian drive; I cannot recall any pre-mandated scripture passages expressing those sentiments, so it must be a formalized religion dictating again. Even if this was the actual source of the R & G tradition, I think it’s a rather grisly foreshadowing at a birth of an enlightened one. Another theory has holly leaves symbolizing the thorns on Christ’s crown and the red berries as the blood drops. I never thought of Christmas as a bloody holiday, but maybe that’s because it isn’t a usual theme in Bergedorf’s holiday windows.
My mystic side likes the common ground the Druids, Egyptians and Europeans share in their tradition of honoring the evergreen, which is a symbol of everlasting life in the dark, bleak months of winter. Druids likened evergreens to their bond with fairies, bringing them indoors to keep the evil spirits away. Ditto the Egyptians as they brought palms inside in early January to celebrate victory over death. Germans can be proud to note that pine boughs and even whole trees were hung upside-down from the ceiling to keep the rooms smelling fresh in the tight winter quarters shared with livestock, until Martin Luther decided to set trees upright and add candles to illuminate the greens like stars. But my favorite find was a tradition called the Paradise Tree, which is a fir decorated with apples, representing the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden. It was customary to hold community gatherings and enact creationistthemed theater among neighbors during the winter solstice, and the red of the apples added to the greenery of the fir, creating a defining color scheme. I can practically smell the combination as I type.
With green firmly entrenched for centuries, it only took capitalistic America to clinch red as an honorary banner. You see, St. Nick use to wear different colored cloaks in cards and books, until the Coca-Cola company sealed the deal by depicting a red Santa suit in their jolly holiday ads, echoing their logo of red and white. Perhaps it is an urban myth, but there seems to be a coincidence of the now standard red suit and the timing of the Coke campaigns of the 1930s produced to aid slumping winter soft drink sales.
Whatever the original source, some ponder the aesthetic impact of red and green together. They hold contrasting positions on the color wheel and create a sort of visual vibration when held together, creating either harmony or discord, depending on the shade. As far as clothing is concerned, you‘d probably rather be caught dead than wear a red top and a green skirt outside of December, if even at all. Very few can pull off that combo without looking downright tacky.
Which brings me to the main point of this design article: do we have to resort to these standardized colors when dressing our holiday home, cards, gifts, tree and dining table? Of course not. The trend has been to steer away from red and green, in fact. For the last few holiday seasons, red and green are passé. So what is new on the Christmas fashion front? Take your pick. A nice safe twist is only a muted tone away with magenta and olive. They look stunning with old gold and lend a festive look on many levels. Another good bet would be the unicolor route, which showcases one color with complimentary accents. Try varied shades of blue with frosty white to make a nice monochromatic winter mood. Red and purple looks regal with a smidgen of silver. Some folks think shine equals kitsch (although a completely kitschy Christmas may be the most fun of all), so they get a lot of design points putting together a naturally textured seasonal home. Branches, straw, wood, berries, clay and other eco-friendly decorations can take you back to the premanufacturing times where the focus was on the celebration of creativity instead of the art of shopping. I admit to having been both a true shine-o-holic and a texture Öko-freak, depending on the year.
As someone who has four red walls in the living room, I don’t have to do much more than put up my green tree to achieve the red-green requirement. If you have ever considered a red room, now is the best time to scratch that itch and kick-off the season with a bang! The benefits of a red room are multi-fold. It inspires romance, stimulates passion, activates the eating centers, anchors a theme and compliments just about all wood tones, setting off your furniture to perfection. It can be patriotic or sensual,Asian or Danish, rich or soothing. I find red rooms utterly peaceful and wanton at the same time. Sitting on my red couch, surrounded with red walls, looking out the large window to garden greenery, I notice that these two colors compliment each other like yin and yang. This is certainly not limited to Christmas cheer, but is rather a year-round present varying as the seasons change the palette from palest lime in spring to glossy green in summer, finishing with rich evergreen in winter. Red is the anchor that accentuates these changes.
If you decide to take the plunge and go for that lick of red paint, everything is going to look great in the late afternoon darkness as your glowing tree candles and handmade Advent wreath accent your interior colors. Red never looked so good. Instead of decking the halls, consider decking the walls.
originally published in Currents Dec 2008/Jan 2009