How Coca-Cola and holly fixed red and green in our minds as the colours of Christmas

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The history of the colours red and green’s association with Christmas is ancient and complex, but we have Coca-Cola to blame for the more recent profusion of red at Christmas.

The story of how the colors red and green became the traditional colors of Christmas goes back centuries.

Although the Victorians embraced Christmas and introduced many of today’s traditions – from cards to crackers and trees to turkeys – Cambridge University research scientist Dr. Spike Bucklow believes that these Christmas colors were not inspired by the Victorians but rather revived by them and that their significance draws on a history that is millennia older.

Evergreen holly with its shiny green leaves and its bright red berries

The Christian symbolism of holly

European holly, also known as Christ’s thorn, is a traditional Christmas decoration in many Western countries.

The plant has long carried a Christian symbolism as represented in the Christmas carol The Holly and the Ivy in which the holly represents Jesus and the Ivy represents the Virgin Mary.

In Christian symbolism, the sharpness of the leaves recalls the crown of thorns worn by Jesus and the red berries are a reminder of the drops of blood that were shed for salvation. The shape of the leaves, which resemble flames, serve to reveal God’s burning love for His people.

The fact that Holly is an evergreen plant that maintains its bright colors during the European winter Christmas season, contributed to it being associated with Christmas.

Pre-Christian symbolism of holly

In ancient Celtic culture, from the fourth century BCE, the Druids believed that holly offered protection against evil spirits. At the winter solstice, they decorated their homes with holly. They also believed that holly, with its shiny leaves and red berries, stayed green to keep the earth beautiful when the sacred oak lost its leaves.

How Coca-Cola’s red became Xmas red

Arielle Eckstut co-author of Secret Language of Color, says red and green at Christmas are the result of two things: Holly and Coca-Cola.

She says holly has played a huge part in the red and green Christmas association. It dates back to winter solstice celebrations in ancient Rome and is associated with the crown of thorns of Jesus.

But in 1931 Coca-Cola hired Haddon Sundblom to create a Santa Claus for their Christmas ads and everything changed. Sundblom’s Santa was fat and jolly with a red coat, Coke’s corporate colour. Before that Father Christmas had been drawn in all shapes and sizes, with a green, blue or red outfit.

Sundblom’s ads were such a hit that Coke continued working with him for decades. The Coke ads firmly fixed red as the colour of Christmas in our minds.