Given the barrage of seasonal advertising, it’s difficult to forget that red and green are colors we associate with the month of December.
Of course, this has been true for a long time, since before the Christian era. For example, the Romans celebrated the festival of Saturnalia every year, honoring their god, Saturn, coincident with the winter solstice. The Romans would weave green holly wreaths to hang around their houses, signifying their desire to see the return of spring. The solstice had long been a good excuse for a festival, and from what I’ve read, Romans seemed to enjoy life more than we do, with their love of food, drink, and shenanigans bordering on the sensual.
Red classically has represented blood and life, which is why ancient peoples made red paint from hematite (iron oxide), and some cultures spread it on their dead before burial. When the Christian era came along, red took on another meaning — that of the blood of the son of God — and so it made perfect sense to keep making holly wreaths around the solstice, this time with berries celebrating his birth. That’s how I heard the story as a child, probably around the holidays.
A disclaimer here: I am not a fan of the holidays as currently celebrated. I’d sooner be disemboweled with a butter knife than watch another performance of “The Nutcracker.” But I must admit that I sometimes yearn for the holidays of my youth when I was showered with gifts. I still have some of them, including a Lafayette photoelectric switch and a framed collection of Native American flint tools found in Ohio, which fueled my interests in history and science. Beyond the gifts, there were also my mother’s anise cookies, Jell-O salads (I miss them), the requisite roast beef, and my hamming uncles and doting aunts. You gotta love second-generation Germans if for no other reason than their joy in partying. To top it off, my mother was part Irish, so there was always dancing and lots of laughter. In grade school, I just let these shenanigans soak in. Romans, we weren’t, but today I’d be out there dancing, too.
I didn’t recognize it as a child, but since the beginning of the last century, red and green have been given entirely different meanings. Red became the color of totalitarian political systems, beginning with Russia and the Soviet Union, followed by China, and now our own Republican Party, which would certainly cause any pre-1970 Republicans to spin in their graves. If they weren’t yet dead, it would kill them.
Interestingly, green has retained its association with life and rebirth. Today, we have the Green New Deal, green construction and green products that promote sustainability. While before, the green complimented the red, or vice versa, now they are in direct opposition. Given our long history with these two colors, I do not believe the present situation will stand, nor should it.
Humans are facing what is arguably the largest challenge our species has known. After 300,000 years of tribal behavior, unrestricted growth and exploitation of the Earth’s resources, we now find ourselves in a real fix. Doing something about it is not going to be easy. We will all have to make sacrifices and shed some virtual blood (taking back our red) while expanding our efforts to make our lives greener.
We could also modify our government and follow the Athenians in relying upon direct (rather than representative) democracy. Names were drawn yearly from a pool of all citizens to determine who would be responsible for making new laws that year, with all changes to be voted on by all citizens. The brilliance of this system is that it forced all citizens to be reasonably informed — something we can only dream of now.
Maybe it’s time for us “modern” humans to take some hints from those who lived in classical antiquity. We do, after all, live in the shadow of an active volcano (like Vesuvius) and I’m all for living more modestly and wearing loose-fitting clothing and sandals. We could at the same time expand our love of food, drink, and shenanigans like dancing.
At our house this year, we’ll be hanging a wreath of cut holly branches (with berries) to symbolize both the solstice and the death and rebirth we must embrace to prepare the way for our grandchildren. On Vashon, holly is an invasive species, so I think the gods would approve.
Greg Wessel is a Vashon Island geologist, history buff and part-time treasure hunter. He can also polka.