Why Are Christmas Colors Red and Green? An Expert Explains the Origins

The classic colors of Christmas have their roots in the world's favorite soda maker.

Today, Christmas is synonymous with Santa Claus, tinseled trees, and that iconic red-and-green color scheme. But believe it or not, there was once a time when holiday cards would feature the colors blue and white just as often as they would red and green. That all changed in 1931 when Coca-Cola, the world's most popular soda maker, hired a new artist to illustrate Santa Claus named Haddon Sundblom.

Sundblom's take on Kris Kringle was "fat and jolly—whereas before he was often thin and elf-like—and he had red robes," Arielle Eckstut, co-author of The Secret Language of Color, explained to NPR in 2016. "The fact that all these things came together—this friendly, fat Santa in these bright red robes… this really took hold in American culture." The background color Sundblom chose for his jolly old red-clad Saint Nick was green.

santa claus holding a glass of coca cola soda with a drink coca cola advertisement in the background

It's likely not a coincidence that Sundblom's Santa wore robes that matched the color of the Coca-Cola logo. The company, however, denies that connection. On their website, they note, "Even though it's often said that Santa wears a red coat because red is the color of Coca-Cola, Santa appeared in a red coat before Sundblom painted him" (a reference to Civil War cartoonist Thomas Nast's Santa for Harper's Weekly in the 1860s).

But whatever the motivation, it's likely that Sundblom's combination of red and green resonated with Americans who were already associating holly with the holiday. "Holly has played a huge part in this red and green association. And it dates back to winter solstice celebrations with the Romans, and maybe beyond," Eckstut said. "Also, holly is associated with the crown of thorns of Jesus. Those beautiful bright red berries and those deep green leaves are the exact colors that we really come to think about Christmas."

So, whether Sundblom knew what he was doing or not, his Santa sketches served to unite the winter solstice festivities of yesteryear with the Christmas celebrations of modern times. His illustrations "solidified in our collective imaginations the red of Santa's robes with the green of fir trees and holly and poinsettia that we already had in our minds," noted Eckstut.

"I like to say it's the beauty of nature combined with the crassness of commerce that created a red and green Christmas," she told Time in 2018. 

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