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Column #55

Red and Green Quilts

Doll 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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Archived blogs:

Column 149: Rosie’s Redwork
Column 148: The Quilt of Belonging
Column 147: Kanthas—The Quilts of Bangladesh
Column 146: Patterns
Column 145: Suzy on Carolyn Mazloomi's Groundbreaking Quilt Exhibit
Column 144: Texas Community Marks Juneteenth Sesquicentennial with History Quilts
Column 143: Maya Embroidered Patchwork
Column 142: Huipil Patchwork Quilts
Column 141: Tom Korn’s Military Medal Quilts
Column 140: The Return of Double Knits!
Column 139: Passage Quilts
Column 138: Home of the Brave Quilts
Column 137: The Story of Fabric Yo-Yos
Column 136: Christmas in July
Column 135: Trifles
Column 134: Deaf Initiatives—Communicating Through Quilts
Column 133: My Betty Boop Quilt
Column 132: Maura Grace Ambrose
Column 131: All You Need Is Love
Column 130: Chicken Linens
Column 129: The Quilted Chuppah
Column 128: Patchwork Around the World: Yoruba Dance Costumes
Column 127: The Bowers Co-Op Quilts
Column 126: Fon Appliqué and Haitian Voodoo Flags
Column 125: The Quilt Garden at The North Carolina Arboretum
Column 124: Harriet Powers and Handful’s Mauma
Column 123: Quilters de Mexico
Column 122: An Appliquéd Surprise
Column 121: Matisse’s Fabric Stash
Column 120: Soogan—The Cowboy’s Quilt
Column 119: The Ron Swanson Quilt
Column 118: HClarkdale, Georgia—A Thread of History
Column 117: How WWI Changed the Color of Quilts in the United States
Column 116: Wagga—The Bushman’s Quilt
Column 115: All in the Family
Column 114: The Alabama State Quilt
Column 113: Balloon Quilts of Albuquerque
Column 112: The Family That Quilts Together, Stays Together
Column 111: Two Rivers, Three Sisters
Column 110: Quilters Helping Quilters
Column 109: Community Cookbooks and Fundraiser Quilts—Parallel Histories
Column 108: Quilting to Freedom
Column 107: National Quilting Day
Column 106: The Airing of the Quilts
Column 105: A Call for a National Juneteenth Commemorative Quilt
Column 104: Dominoes
Column 103: 1936 Texas Centennial Bluebonnet Quilt
Column 102: Helen Blackstone, A Texas Quilter
Column 101: Montana CattleWomen Anniversary Brand Quilt
Column 100: 100th Suzy's Fancy Column!
Column 99: Montana Stockgrowers Anniversary Brand Quilt
Column 98: The Tobacco Sack Connection
Column 97: Meet the Sisters Who Are State Fair Quilting Queens
Column 96: The connection between fairs and quilts.
Column 95: Her Mother Pieced Quilts
Column 94: Rebecca Barker’s Quiltscapes
Column 93: The Thread and Thimble Club Mystery

See other archived columns here