Red and Green Quilts
Christmas Block Wallhanging by Kathleen McCrady, 1988. Photo by Alex Labry.
It’s December as I write this, and my home has been festooned for Christmas in a mostly red and green color scheme. At this time of year, I usually pull out a couple of red and green quilts to complete my holiday decorating. I could hardly be less original with my color choices, of course, as red and green have long been closely associated with the holiday season worldwide in countries that celebrate Christmas.
There are many theories, both secular and spiritual, as to why and how red and green became synonymous with Christmas. Most date the origin to pagan times, when evergreens were used in winter solstice celebrations to symbolize the continuation of life through seasons when much plant life died or went dormant. Holly, with its glossy evergreen foliage and bright red berries, was believed by Romans to be sacred to their god Saturn and so was used during Saturnalia, a festival held each December in his honor.
During the Middle Ages in Germany, “mystery plays” were customarily used to teach Biblical stories to illiterate churchgoers. In December, to illustrate the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, a pine tree was decorated with red apples. Eventually, the color green came to symbolize eternal life via Jesus’ sacrifice and red the blood of Christ.
Other traditions, such as Hinduism and Buddhism, link the colors of red and green with spiritual centers in the body.
In the United States during the Civil War, a cartoonist by the name of Thomas Nast drew pictures of Santa Claus based on his reading of Clement Moore’s 1822 poem, The Night Before Christmas (then known as A Visit from St. Nicholas) and gave Santa a red coat and a holly sprig in his hat. Historians variously state that the Santa character in Moore’s poem originally had a tan or black coat. Later illustrators, including those who drew the popular 1930s-era advertisements for Coca Cola, solidified the image of Santa wearing red, usually set off with greenery of some sort in the picture.
The red and green color combination became a craze with quilters in the United States during the decades between the mid-1830s and mid-1860s, when many exceptionally beautiful red and green quilts were created. Quilters have long recognized that complementary colors (those opposite one another on the color wheel), such as red and green, appear to be more intense when used together. It was not until the middle of the 19th century, however, that red and green dyes became more stable. While this new colorfastness was especially true in the case of red dye (green took a little longer), quilters could not resist combining the two.
And so it seems natural nowadays to decorate at Christmastime with red and green, and for those of us who love quilts, with red and green quilts. Whatever the origins of the tradition, it is one that defines the holidays for many of us.
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Column 147: Kanthas—The Quilts of Bangladesh
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