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The history and meaning behind traditional Christmas colors

Learn how red, green, gold, white and purple became synonymous with the holiday.

When you close your eyes and picture Christmas decorations all over your home from childhood, what colors do you see? If you're met with all things red and green, we’re not at all surprised since it’s the standard Christmas color combination. But what is it about these cheery hues that makes them fit for the holiday? And when did gold, white and purple get added to the mix?

As it turns out, the origins go way back, and as expected, the colors have roots in Christianity. But from a psychological standpoint, it makes perfect sense why our homes are brimming with red, green, gold, white and purple decor come Christmastime.

Read on to find out why these common Christmas colors go together like Santa and his sleigh, along with a breakdown of the history and meaning behind each seasonal shade. That way you can decorate with purpose this year or at the very least, wow everyone with a bit of Christmas trivia during your festivities.

Christmas colors and their meaning

Red

“No one knows for certain how red and green became the iconic Christmastime color scheme,” Lori Sawaya, color strategist at The Land of Color and expert on colorimetry, or the art and science of color, tells TODAY.com. “Theories abound.”

Sawaya says that most Christians believe red symbolizes the blood of Christ’s crucifixion. And when it comes to the classic color combination, green represents renewal and eternal life through Jesus, whose birth is celebrated on Dec. 25.

From a color psychology perspective, red demands visual attention and communicates dynamic, strong, and confident feelings, according to Sawaya. Just think about Coca-Cola’s iconic ad campaign from the 1930s. Santa's bright red suit is just one example of leveraging this holiday hue to grab everyone's attention during an otherwise chaotic holiday season.

Green

Bob Richter, vintage lifestyle expert and author of A Very Vintage Christmas (and A Very Vintage Holiday, which will be published in 2023), says it’s difficult to separate red and green because they “really are the quintessential Christmas color combination.”

“The best example of this is holly and ivy, which remains brilliant and abundant during the winter, when other shrubs and trees shed their leaves," he tells TODAY.com. "Some say the holly is the Christ child and the ivy is his mother Mary."

The roots of bringing holly and ivy indoors goes back to the Celts, who Richter says reportedly used it to ward off evil spirits. "It was also the Celts and/or Pagans who began bringing in greens as a way to honor the change in seasons and bring life into their homes during the cold winter months.”

Christians eventually adopted this tradition, displaying green through wreaths, swags and evergreen trees.

As for holly, Sawaya adds that it "symbolizes good luck, protection and prosperity for the new year.”

Many credit modern commercialism for solidifying red and green as the classic Christmas color palette. “Part of the magic of red and green is each amplifies the other because they sit on opposite sides of the color wheel, making them complementary colors,” Sawaya tells TODAY.com.

Gold

Glimmering gold is associated with Christmas because, as the story goes, the Three Wise Men brought gold, frankincense and myrrh to the “Christ Child.” 

“Because of its association with great financial value, gold is the color of prosperity and abundance,” Richter says. “Adding gold to your home at the holidays is a way of celebrating these gifts and inviting in even more of them.” Perhaps the most opulent holiday color, it shows up frequently in bows, ornaments, candlesticks and other glittering decor.

“Gold can also be a metaphor for the Star of Bethlehem,” Richter adds.

Gold does have a way of making a holiday gathering look instantly festive. As Sawaya points out, “Gold amplifies a sense of celebration and extravagance that many feel during the special time of year as the holidays roll into a new year.”

White

“Christmas is about the birth of Jesus, and white aligns with God’s promise of life everlasting and the purity, hope and goodness that Jesus’ life and death represent,” Sawaya says.

Religious tie-in aside, white is a color that’s naturally linked to the freshly fallen snow in winter. For that reason, Richter adds that white decorations can be left up all season long, everything from cotton batting that resemble snowy landscapes to white lights for an inviting glow.

“Even if white winter snow doesn’t blanket where you live, it’s ubiquitous in decorations and greeting card artwork,” Sawaya says. “Dreaming of a white Christmas can, after all, be done from anywhere.”

Purple

“Purple is the color of royalty, and many (Christians) associate it with the King of Kings, Jesus Christ,” Richter says. That explains why we often see purple used throughout Advent, the four weeks leading up to Christmas.

“A purple candle is lit each week to signify the coming of Christ,” Richter continues. “Of course, adding purple adds a richness to holiday decor and also creates a feeling of celebration and opulence.”

Purple has long been considered to be a regal and royal color because, as Sawaya explains, prior to 1856, purple dyes and pigments were rare and only the wealthiest could afford it. That all changed when chemistry student William Perkin stumbled upon a way to produce mauve-colored dye while working on a malaria treatment at the Royal College of London.

“The world and the color purple would never be the same,” Sawaya says. “Even though Perkin’s discovery democratized the color purple, associating it with wealth, royalty and mystery carries on. No other color conveys specialness and the essence of sacredness like purple.”