It’s tough to think about a time when red and green weren’t synonymous with Christmas, but they haven’t always been the holiday’s go-to colors. Arielle Eckstut, co-author of Secret Language of Color, attributes the palette’s rise to two factors: holly and Coca-Cola.
“Holly has played a huge portion in this red and green association,” Eckstut tells NPR’s Ari Shapiro. “And it dates back to winter solstice celebrations with the Romans, and perhaps beyond. … And also, holly is associated with the crown of thorns of Jesus. And just these beautiful vibrant red berries and those deep green leaves are the precise colors that we really come to feel about when we think about Christmas”
But it took a even though for red and green to rise to the best. Eckstut says Victorian Christmas cards employed a lot of distinct palettes (red and green, red and blue, blue and green, blue and white) and they usually place Santa in blue, green or red robes. All that changed in 1931.
“Coca-Cola hired an artist to generate a Santa Claus,” Eckstut says. “They had done this just before, but this specific artist produced a Santa Claus that we associate with the Santa Claus today in several methods: He was fat and jolly — whereas ahead of he was typically thin and elf-like — and he had red robes. … And so the fact that all these things came with each other — this friendly, fat Santa in these vibrant red robes, which, I do not feel is a coincidence, match the color of the Coke logo — this actually took hold in American culture.”
The artist was Haddon Sundblom, and his ads have been such a hit that Coke continued operating with him for decades.
Eckstut says, “It solidified in our collective imaginations the red of Santa’s robes with the green of fir trees and holly and pointsettia that we already had in our minds. … This distinct shade of red and green came to signify Christmas.”