The Colors of Christmas

“Christmas is not only getting too commercial, it’s getting too dangerous!” - Linus Van Pelt

Consumerism vs. Religion

No matter what you celebrate at this time of year, the holidays, for many, can be a stark contrast between a season of joy and a complete nightmare; between revitalizing our spirit and obliterating our financial security.

We traverse the medley onslaught of songs, movies, and advertising, deciding whether to sit through the next Holiday Blowout Sale commercial or go use the bathroom.

However, there’s a devious, intentional side to the holidays that we are too often unaware of. The nefarious colorization of our beloved holidays, specifically brought to us in REDs and GREENs to make us spend! 

While there are many theories regarding the origins of the red and green color scheme for the winter holidays, the imagery of red holly berries and green ivy are staples in the landscape of holiday decorations. And while deep, green pine trees with red apples tied to them, ornamentally, were used to represent the Paradise Tree of Adam & Eve lore in Christianity, other practices celebrated mistletoe and holly, decorated yule logs, and warm fires.

Nowadays, these colors are less religious and found in more abundance to lure consumers to buy. There’s a science to these colors that marketers and advertisers rely on, directly, for holiday marketing. 

Red, yellow, and blue are the three primary colors

RED is the fastest moving color on the spectrum, catching your eye and forcing you to notice. It’s also one of three primary colors. GREEN is made of the other two primary colors, YELLOW, warm and fun, and BLUE, calm and relaxed. 

Playing RED against GREEN (or yellow + blue), the optical effect cause a vibration which in advertising, is subconsciously unsettling and pleasing at the same time.

Adding YELLOW and BLUE, you get GREEN, the opposite of RED on the color wheel, and a color that maintains calm warmth and feeling of stability, a contrast to the intensity and speed of RED

Advertisers figured out a long time ago that bombarding consumers with RED and GREEN during the holidays can easily lure attention to signage, products, promotions, or even the mood of the season and get us to spend more. They also figured out that the optical effect of the two colors causes vibration, making consumers feel both rushed and calmed, at the same time. Imagine a whole season devoted to being urgently relaxed.

Red and Green are a more vibrant contrast than even black and white.

No matter what retail business you go to, these colors are slapped on everything. From cookies to candy canes; clothes to computers; toys to power tools. Banners, stickers, badges, or ribbons pop off every package on the shelf.

For over 30 years, my job as a designer and illustrator has been to create ads for that will directly influence your buying decisions. Whether it’s the holiday razor pack from Gillette, the special value meal at McDonald’s, or the rewards programs at Staples, I have designed a thousand ways to grab a consumer’s attention, get them to look at a product they may not have even been interested in, and subconsciously lure them into buying via an obvious method of optical trickery. 

A holiday ad I designed for a McDonald’s promotion.

And while my design may not make a consumer buy that specific product, if every company slaps red and green bursts on their products, and the store has red and green decorations coming from every direction, and the store plays catchy holiday music, and the entire landscape screams CHRISTMAS, then a resulting psychological feeling of being overwhelmed and trapped in a theme becomes present. 

And an overwhelmed consumer is either going to speed-buy things they don’t need or didn’t want, or they’re going to flee for their lives. Retailers are savvy and plan for the former, carefully laying everything out, even in late October when they begin casually sliding holiday decorations into their wares.

So, whether you’re shopping for new underwear or buying the household groceries for the week, it can be really helpful to remember to avoid anything with holiday packaging, be it ribbons, bursts, stickers, or whatever, and just go for the normal product you’d usually buy. 

A few weeks ago, I went to buy groceries and found that I bought holiday M&Ms, which I never buy, along with holiday frosted cookies, and egg nog. I spent maybe an additional $20 on items I normally never buy. Why? Well, they each were packaged in red and green. I got caught up in the whole, “Oh, this will be good for the holidays!” And most of these items were in areas of the store where they were being promoted, heavily, even though the price was the same as the regular product, if not more. 

2016 M&M’s package design (I did not design this)

 Now, when I go to the mall or any retail store, even to buy holiday gifts, I try to remind myself not to get caught up in the spirit of marketing and the colors of commercialization, and to keep my focus on what I need, how much I should spend, and what the end result is beyond the holidays. 

And for me, when I do that, I get back to my car and feel good about the choices I made and that I was not lured in by some marketing or advertising effort to buy fuzzy Santa socks when I never needed them in the first place. 

I hope everyone has a wonderful, happy, and safe holiday season. Thank you for reading! Love & cheers!