As the holiday season came upon us this year, we though it seemed like an appropriate time to ponder how certain colors became associated with the key Winter holidays of Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanza.

Thanksgiving

The Colors of Thanksgiving are reflected in the season and food of this annual holiday which originated with people expressing appreciation for bountiful harvests with a feast of foods gathered in the fall.  An interesting factoid –  the colors of Thanksgiving are also known to stimulate the appetite.  So, it’s no wonder we all stuff ourselves this one day in the year.

Brown is the dominant color of Thanksgiving because the at center of the meal is turkey. However, it is debated that the Pilgrims and Native Americans ate deer or even eel instead.  Besides representing turkey, brown also reflects the color of leaves in deep autumn before they fall.

Yellow is the primary color of corn, and it was the Pilgrim’s first corn harvest that led to the original Thanksgiving feast.  Native Americans taught the Pilgrims how to grow corn to survive the brutal winters.  Ornamental corncobs of various colors are found in wreaths, cornucopias and seasonal decorations.

Orange pumpkin dishes are also a popular at the Thanksgiving table.  Native American Indians used pumpkins as a staple in their diets.  Whether as pumpkin soup or pumpkin pie, orange adorns almost every holiday meal as the pumpkin is an important symbol of the harvest festival.

Red is also a Thanksgiving color – representing cranberries – which are one of only three fruits native to North America. Cranberries were eaten by Native Americans who believed they had medicinal value. Cranberries were mixed with meat as sweetening. It is thought Pilgrims later added maple sugar to cranberries to create cranberry sauce.

Hanukkah

On Tuesday, December 12, members of the Jewish faith start celebrating 8 days of Hanukkah. The colors of Hanukkah are Blue and White and are associated with the colors on the Israeli flag.  Indeed, these national colors are especially meaningful during Hanukkah because the holiday commemorates the Jewish victory against the King Antiochus in the 2nd century BC in which the Jews revolted against the outlawing of their religious practice and the occupation of their Temple.

There is a reason why the flag is blue and white — these colors have deep resonance within the Jewish tradition.  The Jewish prayer shawl, or tallit, is described in the Book of Numbers as having one thread dyed with a certain kind of blue – tekhelet – and three threads of white among the fringe at the corners.   The rabbinical interpretation is that tekhelet is the color of heaven and of divine revelation.  In the time of the Israelites, tekhelet dye was made from a kind of snail, and was used by the upper classes as dye for clothing and vestments.

White is a symbolic association of purity and cleanliness.  Early members of the Zionist movement explicitly wanted to echo the aesthetic of the tallit in designing the Israeli flag, and ultimately settled on the blue and white design of today. This has influenced how Jews decorate for holidays, although the centerpiece decoration for Hanukkah remains the beautiful metalwork Hanukkah menorah.

Kwanzaa

Black, red and green are the colors of Kwanzaa – a holiday that originated in 1966 as a celebration of African-American heritage. Taking its ideas from traditional African cultures, Kwanzaa emphasizes values like togetherness, creativity, self-determination and faith. The colors green, red and black have specific associations:  green connotes the land of Africa and hope for the future; black refers to the skin color of the African people, and red signifies the blood of African ancestors shed in violence for liberation. These colors resonate with the vibrant traditional African textiles used in the Kwanzaa celebration.

During the seven days of Kwanzaa, celebrants light the Mishumaa Saba which are placed in the Kinara candleholder which symbolizes the ancestors.  The 7 candles represent the Seven Principles. One new candle is lit per day – three red, one black, and three green – each signifying a different principle.  Other symbols are: fruits and vegetables that represent the harvest; an African straw placemat to celebrate traditional crafts; an ear of corn representing fertility and reproduction; and, gifts for children to reward achievement and growth.

Christmas

Red and Green are thought to be the colors related to the props of the Christmas ‘mystery plays’ which were popular theatrical adaptations of Biblical stories and themes performed in medieval Europe.

The historical origins of the green Christmas tree and the significance of the color green ties back to the evergreen tree which was seen as a symbol of Christ’s resurrection and eternal life.

It is theorized that red gained its significance during the performance the Paradise play on December 24 when the story of the fall of Adam and Eve from Eden is told.  To perform this play, obviously one would need an apple tree — not so easy to come by during the European winter — so the branch of a fir tree would be adorned with apples.  And so, this became a popular seasonal decoration in Europe, paving the way for both the decorated Christmas tree and the association of the colors red and green with Christmastime.

We also see red and green in wintertime flora. Holly is an evergreen plant with red berries that emerge in winter.  Its sharply pointed leaves have been used to reference Christ’s crown of thorns, while the berries have been said to represent the blood Christ spilled on the cross.

So, whatever holiday you are celebrating this winter, have a wonderful one and warm yourself in the glow of knowing the history of your own traditions.