Reflecting On The Reason For The Colors Of The Season Holiday Hues

November 07, 1993|By JOE SURKIEWICZ

We've been dreaming of a white Christmas ever since Irving Berlin penned the lyrics in 1942 to a song crooned by Bing Crosby in the film "Holiday Inn."

Funny thing, though. Aside from frosty images of snow, the color white doesn't deliver much of an emotional punch during the holidays. For many people, white is too cold to conjure festive images.

To evoke the wonder and gaiety of the holidays, we think instead of deep and vibrant reds, greens and blues, or of shimmery metallics such as silver and gold.

Why? That's an easy one: Winter is a cold, dark time of year -- the lavish use of color during the holidays makes us feel warm and cheerful.

Yet the significance of color goes much deeper than setting a mood. Seasonal colors are often symbols that carry emotional meaning. The symbolic use of color has its roots in religious custom (for example, red vestments worn by priests), cultural tradition (the purple robes of kings and queens) and social conventions (red for stop, green for go). In fact, the roles that colors play are constantly evolving, and that includes the palette of traditional holiday hues.

"The symbolism of red and green is still there, but it's not being used as much," says Margaret Walsh, associate director of the Color Association of the United States, a textile trade association in New York.

This year, color trends for the holidays include a shift away from shiny tinsel toward copper and pewter hues, notes Ms. Walsh, whose job is anticipating shades that will be popular.

"The other shift is toward custom colors like fuchsia. But the principle of color liveliness is still there. It's just being expressed differently."

One reason for the change in color preference is increased informality during the holidays.

"We're seeing more use of multiple colors, such as differently colored plates, napkins and candles, Ms. Walsh says. "It's less formal than everything being coordinated."

Is the shift away from traditional colors a signal to brace for revolutionary changes?

Santa in a plum suit?

I'm dreaming of a beige Christmas?

Not to worry.

"The only custom colors we'll see this Christmas are the ones that have proven themselves -- magenta, fuchsia, coral, maybe chartreuse," Ms. Walsh says. "Experimentation in tradition is different from changes on the fashion-show runway."

Cultural cues and hues

Color is powerful. But there are no hard and fast rules about the meaning -- and impact -- of color, in part because culture and religion play significant roles in how color is perceived.

Red, the color of fire and blood, is also the color of passion and is rooted in religious custom. While Santa may wear a jolly red suit, for some Christians the color represents suffering and regeneration.

In the Jewish tradition, blue symbolizes the heavens. Blue is also associated with loyalty ("true blue"), wisdom and spirituality -- virtues we celebrate during the holidays. The yellow flame of candles in the Hanukkah menorah signifies the beauty of the soul and the freedom it aspires to.

Kwanza, a week-long African-heritage holiday beginning Dec. 26, a celebration of family and social values. It's a festival steeped in color.

"On each day of Kwanza a new candle -- either red, black or green -- is lighted in the kinara [candle holder]," explains Myrtice Hockaday, executive director of New Era Education, a day-care center in West Baltimore that goes all out for the holiday. "Red represents the blood that was shed by our ancestors and black represents our race. Green is for children, the future and the land."

Green also reminds many of us of trees, growth, renewal and immortality -- a pretty good list of the things we celebrate at this time of year.

Feel the power

While the symbolism of color is powerful no matter what the culture, a viewer's response to color goes way beyond an aesthetic or traditional experience.

Color creates a sensual climate that is so pervasive it effects us not only emotionally but physically as well. In general, warm colors activate and enliven; cool colors quiet and relax.

Color's impact extends to what we put in ourselves -- especially during the holidays, with their emphasis on feasting.

"Think of orange pumpkins at Thanksgiving," says Dr. Maria Simonson, director of the Health, Weight and Stress Clinic at Johns Hopkins Hospital. "Orange is the most stimulating color for the appetite. Yellow corn cobs, tan and green cornstalks, and red apples make a bright fall display that makes you think of eating."

The appetizing effect of color continues throughout the season.

"When we serve food at Christmas, everyone vies for the most colorful buffet," Dr. Simonson notes. "In many restaurants your plate comes decorated with a bright red spiced apple and two little green leaves that are edible -- and appetizing."

Tempted by so many scrumptious colors, it's no surprise that many people put on extra pounds during the holiday season.

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