The Reading Room
Dante and the Symbolic Meaning of the Colors of Christmas
Though the Christmas season is rapidly approaching, and Christmas trees, both artificial and natural, are adorning the homes of many individuals, it is far less likely that the denizens of those homes understand the origin of their green tree, its traditional white lighting, and the many red ornaments hanging from its branches.
Nor is it likely that they see the connection between the coloring of their tree and the color-light restrictions of their respective subdivision and the flags of traditionally Catholic countries, like Mexico and Italy, which prominently display the colors of red, green, and white. In Dante’s Purgatorio, he utilizes the very same colors in his divine procession of the books of the Bible, while also attaching to the colors an identity with three dancing women—themselves representations of the Christian or Theological Virtues of faith, hope, and love.
Three circling women, then advancing, danced:at the right wheel; the first of them, so red
that even in a flame she’d not be noted;
the second seemed as if her flesh and bone
were fashioned out of emerald; the third
seemed to be newly fallen snow. And now
the white one seemed to lead them, now the red;
and from the way in which the leader chanted,
the others took their pace, now slow, now rapid.
(Pur.28.121-129; my emphases)
These “three circling women” are allegorical representations of the Christian virtues, who are physically dancing around a chariot which represents the body of the Church. To make the virtues easier to recognize, Dante includes the four cardinal virtues (prudence, fortitude, temperance, justice) on the other side of the chariot. Prudence, which provides humans with the power of foresight, is intelligently represented as having three eyes (Pur.28.132).
The three Theological Virtues are described as red, emerald, and snow-colored. The virtue of love is represented as redder than flame. The red of this love, though, does not reflect the contemporary romanticism of stylized hearts, like the red of Valentine’s Day does, but rather the sacrifice of blood in an ultimate act of charity. This is also what variously red and purple cloths draped about crucifixes during Easter weekend symbolize.
The second color, emerald, is a vivid green which represents the virtue of hope, which also “springs” eternal and connects the theological virtue with the notion of perpetual rebirth and renewal. The final color, newly fallen snow, is pure white, very different from the grayed and hardened snow of winter’s later months. This color represents the virtue of faith and its unblemished nature, ideally speaking.
These colors together, therefore, represent the Christian virtues which are supposed to suffuse the religion in general, but are particularly prevalent during the Christmas season, which itself features the symbolism of God giving the gift of his son and grace to the world and the reenactment of this practice through the giving of tangible gifts between practitioners. Just as Paul writes in Galatians that, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree” (Gal. 3:13; ESV), so do modern Christians themselves hang ornaments “on a tree” as a symbolic imitation of Christ’s own hanging on a crucifix, as described by the apostle Paul above.
Even the colors of Santa’s robes feature red and white prominently demonstrating the close connection between his own charitable act and that of God and countless parents down on earth.