I’ve always been a little uneasy about the red and green colours that symbolise Christmas. They seem yet another colonial imposition, one that makes little sense in an antipodean mid-summer. Yet, each year I decorate a Christmas tree and enjoy small friends and relations who believe in Santa Claus in his jolly red outfit. The green, pine smell of a Christmas tree in the living room has a magic that is at odds with the numerous pine trees that flourish near my home in Wentworth Falls in the Blue Mountains. I regard them with a jaundiced eye. They are, after all an overly successful invasive species. Adaptation is a powerful force, however, and their cones have become a popular source of Christmas food among the yellow tailed cockatoos.
I am always delighted when a foreign symbol is transformed into something local and relevant. Although we still retain the ubiquitous Holly and Ivy on Christmas cards the red of the northern hemisphere winter berries has been replaced in Australia by bunches of Christmas bush (Ceratopetalum gummiferum) and Christmas Bells (Blandifordia Grandiflora or nobilis) and in New Zealand by the Pohutukawa tree (Metrosideros excelsa).
Unlike those in the northern hemisphere we do not need cheering up in the middle of dark winter days but the colour red has a wider symbolism and universal relevance that is worth thinking about over the Christmas period. It was the first actual colour to be used, along with black and white, by the earliest humans. Black and white, of course, are not ‘real chromatic colours’ with fixed wavelengths but more expressions of our perception of light and darkness, while red is the first ‘real’ colour with a defined wavelength – in fact, the longest wavelength of any colour. It is the first colour babies are able to distinguish and the first colour to vanish as the sun sets.
Black and red were common in Palaeolithic art with red pigments produced from iron oxides or from ochre. Human blood protein was also a constituent of red pigment in two Australian caves dated to the late Pleistocene. The motifs in these caves were mostly hand stencils. In ‘Red: The History of a Color’, Michel Pastourean writes that red “is the archetypal colour, the first colour humans mastered, fabricated, reproduced and broke down into different shades.” It was a strong element dominating different cultures for thousands of years. Red is, of course, the colour of fire which, in times of cold and harsh weather, was indispensible. Fire was also the agent of transformation. If ochre was treated with fire, it was transformed and changed colour. If clay was burnt, it changed its structure and hardness.
In Europe in the Upper Palaeolithic, there was also a powerful symbolic relation between ochre and the feminine. Many Palaeolithic Venus figurines were painted with red ochre. A plant known as Madder also grew widely across Europe, Africa and Asia and was used to create a red dye, while the Aztecs used cochineal, a small bug that they scrapped off cacti, then dried and crushed.
Red was used to depict the skin colour of men in Egyptian wall paintings and many Roman villas were decorated with vivid red murals. During the celebration of Saturnalia, a festival honouring the god Saturn held between 17th and 23rd December, Romans wove holly wreaths and hung them on doors and walls. The wreaths signified their desire to see the rebirth of the sun and return of summer. Romans even placed ‘sigillaria’ or small figurines on evergreen tree boughs that they brought indoors.
When churches began celebrating Christmas on 25th December around the 4th century, the Roman followers of Christianity left their wreaths hanging during Christmas as well. This was essentially the time when green became associated with Christmas.
The Germans took this practice to another level and brought trees into their homes and decorated them with fruits and nuts. Christians performed Paradise Plays in several European countries on Christmas Eve during the Middle Ages. The play narrated the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. The ‘paradise tree’ was located in the Garden of Eden and was basically a pine tree cut down with red apples tied to it.
There are several other theories and legends as to how the evergreen fir tree became a symbol of Christianity. One, which seems somewhat far-fetched is credited to the English Benedictine monk Boniface, famous for missionary work in Germany during the 18th century. Boniface apparently encountered a group of Germans performing a sacrifice in front of an oak tree that was sacred to the god Thor. Boniface is alleged to have seized the axe and cut down the tree to stop the pagans worshipping a false god. Legend has it that a pine tree grew out of the fallen oak and became a symbol of Christ.
Eventually the idea of bringing an evergreen tree into the house evolved into the Christmas tree. The custom was widespread among the German Lutherans by the 18th century but it was not until the following century that the Christmas tree became a deep-rooted German tradition. It was introduced into England in the early 19th century and popularized in the mid-19th century by the German-born Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria. The Victorian tree was decorated with toys and small gifts, candles and fancy cakes hung from the branches by ribbons.
Blown glass ornaments were offered for sale in England and America as early as the 1870s, many produced in small workshops in Germany and Bohemia, which also created decorations made from tinsel, beads and pressed paper. Of course it wasn’t long before capitalists spotted a marketing opportunity and by 1890 in America F. W. Woolworth was selling $25 million in ornaments annually. Electric tree lights were also available. In the 1930s artificial trees made of brush bristles were developed in America and the 1950s and ‘60s saw the mass production of aluminum and PVC plastic trees. And so the Christmas spirit contributes to vast amounts of unnecessary production and rubbish in landfill each year.
I feel a spoil-sport writing such comments but surely we have lost something as life has become increasingly consumer driven. The bright joy of glossy green leaves and red Holly berries in mid-winter pagan times seems preferable to a plastic tree surrounded by expensive and often unnecessary presents. Then there’s the history of advertising that has apparently played a sizable role in establishing the jolly red-attired Santa of today. Particular credit goes to the early Coca-Cola advertisements of Santa Claus who didn’t really exist in the collective cultural consciousness before the company advertisements.
Although Santa Claus is descended from the religious figure of St Nicholas who wore a red robe, his appearance and story have been shaped over many years to become the familiar, secular, jolly character of today (and some might be inclined to say, a symbol of greed). Prior to the Coca-Cola advertisements featuring Santa, he had been portrayed in a variety of ways – as tall and gaunt, short and elfin or distinguished. Some of these early versions were depicted wearing dull brown or green but the tradition of wearing red began in the 1870s with the American cartoonist Thomas Nast who introduced the red suit and cap, white fur and buckled black belt.
The Coca-Cola company began Christmas advertising in the 1920s and in 1930 the artist Fred Mizen painted a department store Santa in a crowd drinking a bottle of Coke. In 1931 Coca-Cola commissioned artist Haddon Sundblom to paint Santa for their annual advertisements. Each year Santa was featured holding a bottle of Coca-Cola, or drinking and enjoying Coca-Cola. This perennial feature helped to increase Coca-Cola’s sales during the winter and created a strong appeal to children. Before television, colour motion pictures or the widespread use of colour in newspapers, Coca-Cola’s magazine advertisements and billboards were for many Americans their primary exposure to the modern image of Santa Claus.
Does it matter? Probably not. After all red symbolizes a great many more things in contemporary culture than Coca-Cola, McDonalds, Red Rooster or other companies who specialize in red. Red stands for many things – all of them potent. It is the colour of heightened emotion, strength and power. It features on national flags and is beloved of revolutionaries. It is associated with romantic passion as well as violence, anger and aggression. It is used to capture attention, to say Stop! while paradoxically standing for action and energy. We talk of the red carpet treatment, red tape, being caught red-handed or being red in the face.
For the Greeks red was the colour of the gods of war – Phoebus and Ares, and in Chinese culture red is associated with weddings, high status and wealth. It is the symbol of love, health and goof fortune. Red is also the colour of one of the energy centres or Chakras within our bodies that are said to help regulate all its processes. The Base or Root Chakra, also known as Muladhara takes red as its colour. It is located at the base of the spine and is said to allow us to be grounded and connect to the universal energies. It is a symbolism for red that appeals to me as it connects us to the natural world and eschews connection with consumerism.
In many ways red is the opposite of blue. Red speeds up our heart rate, blood flow and body temperature. Blue on the other hand symbolizes serenity and stability. It is associated with the ocean and the sky. Maybe this is why I prefer to relax and enjoy a big jug of Eucalyptus leaves and rich, red dahlias from the garden to celebrate Christmas along with hopes for a better, brighter future for our beautiful blue and green planet.