Here’s a quiz the smallest child can take. What are the most important colors of the season right now? (Choose as many as you wish.)
If you picked all of the answers, you are right.
Colors used in Christian worship are called liturgical colors. In many denominations, you’ll find these colors on the altar and in pastoral garments throughout the Church Year. You may also see them in devotional decorations like banners.
This system of colors has been around in Western Christianity for a long time, at least back to the Medieval era. Whether a worshipper is knowledgeable about liturgical colors or not, the colors do have an effect. And once you understand them, they add to the meaning of a worship service.
The traditional color for Advent is violet. It’s okay to call it purple – I do too. The use of blue for Advent in some denominations is also rooted in the Middle Ages. Blue is a “Marian” color, that is, a color associated with the Virgin Mary. Look at any traditional artistic depiction of the Madonna and you’re likely to find Mary in a blue garment.
Still, one perhaps sees violet more generally during Advent. If you’re thinking, “Isn’t that the color for Lent?” you are absolutely right. Violet is the color for a season of prayer, fasting, and penance. And Advent is a penitential season, regardless of the festive Christmas parties all around us.
But there’s one exception to this long stretch of violet (or blue): the third Sunday of Advent, called Gaudete Sunday. Gaudete is the imperative form of the Latin verb gaudere, meaning “rejoice.” The color for “rejoicing” is rose. Thus, rose became the liturgical color for the third Sunday in Advent. On Gaudete Sunday, the rose-colored candle in the Advent wreath will be lit.
That takes care of the four weeks before Christmas Eve. Now, on to Christmas itself. Everyone else may be rolling in red, green, silver and gold, but the traditional color for Christmas in the liturgical calendar is white. Ah, the challenge of being a Christian.
The change occurs on Christmas Eve, when Advent violet gives way to a blazing white. White is considered the most festive color in the entire church calendar. It is the color of Easter, of Christmas, and is used for baptisms, marriages, ordinations, as well as “festal” observances that not every Christian denomination celebrates actively, but most do acknowledge.
What about gold, then? Well, one sees gold used primarily in combination with white for high, joyful feast days. And silver? A metallic silver can be used as an alternative to white. But, basically, for those most important Christian festivals, the traditional liturgical color has been white.
And red and green? You will find a lot of red and green in Christian worship, including at Christmastime. Sometimes red and green are combined. In the Middle Ages, Christmas dramas were popular that juxtaposed Adam and Eve being banished from the Garden of Eden with the promise of the coming Messiah. These plays featured “paradise trees” – evergreens decorated with red apples, which may be the precursor of the Christmas tree. Beyond Christmas, green and red have important spots in the church calendar. Green is used in the season of Epiphany, between January 6th and the beginning of Lent. And green is used again for the long season that begins a week after Pentecost (known as Trinity Sunday) and stretching for many weeks until Advent begins.
Red is the color of fire, so it is used for Pentecost. It is also the color of blood. That means you will find it on Maundy Thursday, the day before Good Friday, the day when Jesus instituted the Last Supper in the Upper Room with his disciples. It may also be used for Palm Sunday.
So, tell your kids that red and green are indeed important colors in Christian tradition. They’re just not the only colors. And take that quiz again, for these are the colors of the season!