Why is it that, every year at Christmas, we faithfully festoon our homes in red and green? It’s tradition, yes, but why? A chemist and art historian at the University of Cambridge has proposed a surprising explanation, based on his study of the meaning of colors in the medieval world.
- I wound my green scarf around my neck, saw it fall against my red sweater, and immediately yanked it off. “I can’t go out like this,” I cried. “I look like Christmas!” Few color combinations evoke such a strong and immediate association. And, yet, why? Why should red and green, of all colors, be so ingrained in our culture to stand for this particular winter holiday?
Spike Bucklow, of the University of Cambridge, may have an answer to this question, a hypothesis that grew out of his study of a certain form of medieval church art. A chemist by training, Dr. Bucklow lends his skills to the restoration of art, at the Hamilton Kerr Institute of the University’s Fitzwilliam Museum. Since 2009, he has been involved in a project to survey and restore rood screens dating from the 14th to the 16th centuries. Rood screens are wooden structures that stand in a church between the nave and the chancel. These screens were carved in the Middle Ages, richly decorated with images of saints or local donors, and followed a very consistent color scheme: alternating zones of red and green. The pattern varied so little that Bucklow thought there had to be a connection.
The function of rood screens may shed light on the meaning of this color choice. Spike Bucklow explains that they demarcate a border within the church: that between the lay public, who might be carrying out various activities in addition to worshipping, like selling beer, in the nave, and the more sacred zone where the altar stood and the choir sang. “It’s a boundary in space, but they also differ in sanctity. It’s also a spiritual boundary.” A marker like this does not necessarily indicate separation, he hastens to add. “We automatically tend to think in hierarchical terms, but borders are about making something special. It depends on your point of view.” A border that says “Do not enter” to a person on one side can mark the highly sought after destination of another.
Inside a church, moving from the nave in the west to the altar in the east is both a passage that takes place in time and a journey from a place of low to high spiritual value. In this case, space and time are partial dimensions of the spiritual boundary, marked by the red and green rood screens. Dr. Bucklow believes that the symbolism of these colors to indicate this spatial and spiritual border in a church was carried over to mark a temporal one: the end of one year and the beginning of the next. “Christmas coincides with the winter solstice, the shortest day and the longest night. It’s a good time to mark the end of a cycle.”
Time, space, and sacredness, therefore, are intertwined and, logically, share a symbolic system to mark their transitions. But why use red and green in the first place? Spike Bucklow suspects they were chosen to represent dichotomies, much like the rood screen announces the distinction between secular and holy, or the solstice marks the turning from old to new. Red and green were commonly associated with the pairs of fire and water, male and female. Bucklow’s analysis of the pigments used in these works of art provides further evidence for the symbolism of opposites. He noticed that the green pigment decorating the rood screens was a synthetic material made from copper. There were several sources for the color red, one of which was iron. Both pigments, then, were derived from metal products. “Metallurgy was determined by astrology in the Middle Ages,” he explains. “The seven planets visible to the naked eye related to seven metals. Copper was associated with Venus, which is tied to the feminine, love, and a watery figure. Iron, on the other hand, is linked to Mars, the masculine, war, and fire.”
It might sound like a stretch for our modern mindset, but Dr. Bucklow was aware that in his work as a scientist restoring paintings, he could be imposing his 21st century view on art that was hundreds of years old. To minimize this risk, he put himself in their shoes and studied the worldview held by people of the Middle Ages. This system of color symbolism was widely known, as he discovered.
“It’s all over poetry, Chaucer, folk songs. This coding of meaning in colors was known by everyone, up until the 17th century when the Newtonian version [of explaining the world] came along.”"
Even today, colors carry different connotations for different cultures around the world. It shouldn’t be too surprising, then, if cultures of the past attributed greater meaning to colors than we do now. “Color associations were extremely powerful,” Dr. Bucklow explains. For example, as purple was reserved for royalty, “up to the year 500, if you wore purple in Eastern Europe or Western Asia, you could be executed. If you were a weaver who made a garment in purple for someone, your hands could be cut off. It’s funny that today we’re so free with color and so unaware.”
The Victorians, who established many of our modern Christmas traditions, may have been at least somewhat aware of the significance held by red and green for cultures past. They were surrounded by medieval church art and the interior painting we see now is often the result of their efforts to touch it up.
“I can imagine there’s a relatively good chance the Victorians picked up the red and green from the same source I picked it up from. I think they probably did understand [its meaning] because they stuck to it, they didn’t mess with it.”"
What if we could feel again all the significance once attached to color? "We tend to think we live in such a more stimulating world, but because we have so much stimulation, there's not much contrast," observes Dr. Bucklow. He gives the example of a pilgrim in the Middle Ages, who would have crawled the last mile on his knees, approaching a magnificent cathedral painted in black, gold, green and red. "The contrast with everyday life would have been so spectacular. In some ways our world is richer; in other ways, our world is poorer." Colors may never speak as loudly for us as they did in medieval times, but we can at least try to hear the message sent by the red and green of our holiday season: This year is dying, but another is soon to be born.