The pairing of red and green, which has become the iconic symbol of Christmas in the secular culture, has its roots in ancient pagan and early Christian traditions. However, the Christian Church honors the celebration of the birth of Jesus with its own liturgical colors: white and gold.
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Plants are a universal metaphor for the cycle of life and spiritual renewal. Cultures around the world prize hardy vegetation that thrives in the brittle desolation of winter, viewing it as a symbol of hope and eternal life. Early Christians adopted ancient Roman traditions that celebrated the Winter Solstice by plucking evergreen sprigs from holly, ivy and mistletoe to weave into good-luck wreaths, swags and hair adornments. During Advent, the four weeks leading up to Christmas, an evergreen fir or pine tree is decorated with lights, ornaments and gifts underneath. In Christianity, green is often used to represent the life and resurrection of Jesus.
From Santa's cozy suit to Rudolph's glowing nose to ribbon-framed wreaths, red is the most visible color of the season. The vibrant shade has strong cultural associations with love, health and power. Winter greenery that sprouts red berries, such as holly, is especially popular at Christmas. Santa's red suit originated with St. Nicholas of Myrna, a red-robed Greek bishop who gave presents to children during the fourth century, notes the encyclopedia "Religions of the World." Red is also a powerful religious symbol used to represent the death of Jesus and the passion of the Holy Spirit.
With much of the Northern Hemisphere blanketed in snow, white is a natural color to represent winter. It is also important to the Christian Church, which uses the hue to portray purity, joy, forgiveness and the light of God. In Revelations 3:4-5, the Bible states: "They will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy. The one who is victorious will, like them, be dressed in white." Christ is welcomed into the world on Christmas Day with the church altar draped in a white cloth. The white light of candles symbolizes God's truth, and the sparkling white lights that sit atop the Christmas tree represents the Star of Bethlehem that the three wise men followed to find the baby Jesus.
Gold is another important liturgical color during the Christmas season. Historically, it has represented royalty, wealth and wisdom, and Jesus is often referred to as the King of Jews. Considered a precious gift, Matthew 2:11 reports that gold was among the presents given to the baby Jesus by the three wise men, and Revelations 21 recounts how the buildings and streets of paradise are constructed of gold. The rich hue is also used to symbolize spiritual illumination, cleansing and the glory of God.