The seasons of the church year are identified by name and colour; we begin December with the season of Advent and the colour purple and we move into The Christmas season which is signified by the colour white. These colours are evident in the Altar frontal in church and the colour of the clergy robes or vestments. Colours have special symbolism in cultures around the world and often arouse particular emotions.
Advent is a time of self-reflection, penitence and quiet contemplation (although you may not think that as you see people rushing around the shops and making preparations for Christmas!) The church uses purple to identify that mood of thoughtfulness – it’s a colour which is also used in Lent and at funerals. White, on the other hand, is used for Feast days and indicates celebration. The Lectionary sets out the Bible readings prescribed for each day of the year and also names the colour which should be used in church. For the Feast of Christmas it states that we should use white or gold – this signifies how special this Feast day is. White is synonymous with light and is recognised as an emblem of divinity. It is also linked with humility, purity and innocence. In the Bible the presence of God is often accompanied by a white light and Jesus is referred to as “the Light of the World”. In the Arab-Islamic world white signifies loyalty and oneness with God. In India white is associated with detachment and serenity. So if you are “dreaming of a white Christmas” you may be hoping for a time of serenity and innocence rather than snow!
In our homes the traditional Christmas colours are usually red and green. Red is probably the strongest and oldest colour in our cultures. The pigments to make red were mastered very early on from ochre soil or the madder plant, and so it has always been a significant colour throughout the world. In some languages the word for red and coloured is the same (e.g. colorado in Spanish). In Japan red is the symbol of the sun and also of the Emperor, who is said to have descended from the sun god. In India and China red is the colour of marriage. In Western culture it can be a symbol of revolution and spilt blood as well as a sign of joy and love.
We think of green as the colour of nature but it was a difficult colour for dyers to recreate and fix in cloth and so it did not gain prominence for many centuries. Its association with nature probably goes back to the time of Mohammed when all green land was thought of as paradise. We sometimes refer to green in a negative way “green with envy” but it is a very restful and calming colour. It is associated with freshness, youth and growth.
The reds and greens of Christmas have probably developed from the tradition of bringing holly into our homes as a form of decoration. The Christmas carol “The Holly and the Ivy” links these plants to aspects of the Christmas story – “The holly bears a berry as red as any blood, and Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ to do poor sinners good.” Whatever colour you use to decorate your home this year I hope that your Christmas is filled with the peacefulness of white, the joy of red, and the vitality of green!