THE LITTLE-KNOWN REASON RED AND GREEN ARE THE COLORS OF CHRISTMAS
Most of the trappings of a modern-day Christmas—from Advent calendars to stockings hung by the chimney with care—are, themselves, relatively modern. But the ubiquitous red-and-green color scheme that dominates this time of year? That has roots stretching as far back as the 13th century, according to Spike Bucklow of the Hamilton Kerr Institute, the conservation branch of the University of Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum.
Bucklow, a research scientist with a focus on the history of artists’ materials, didn’t set out to unravel the mysteries of Christmas decorations. Rather, he was working to conserve a particular type of artwork known as the rood screen—a common architectural element in medieval churches that divided the nave (where the congregation gathered) from the choir or chancel (where the clergy sat). Often, these were richly painted or carved. Depending on the wealth of the congregation that commissioned them, rood screens could feature anything from a simple pattern to a highly detailed depiction of local saints.
Today, rood screens are quite rare. Like other ornate works of religious art, many were destroyed when the frenzied tide of Reformation that swept Europe in the 16th century. But eastern England, where Bucklow is based, happens to boast the highest concentration of extant rood screens in northern Europe.