What Are the Halloween Colors, and What Do They Mean?
Here's why Halloween celebrants bedeck their homes in these contrasting colors.
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We tend to take holiday colors for granted, not giving them too much thought since they’re so ingrained in our culture. It’s usually pretty obvious what colors go with which holidays—all you need to do is step into most general or grocery stores to see full aisles inundated with the hues of the season, like the black and orange of Halloween decor. But what might be less obvious is why certain colors are associated with certain holidays. Why are Christmas colors red and green, for instance? Of course, sometimes the colors are self-explanatory: the association of red, white, and blue with the Fourth of July, for instance, or green with St. Patrick’s Day (or so you’d think). But other times, the colors can seem random.
The October spooky season is dominated by black and orange, but how did these colors become so popular for the holiday? Is it just because of black cats and Halloween jack-o-lanterns, or is there a deeper meaning to the Halloween colors? Turns out, there is—and it has to do with the history behind the holiday of Halloween, too.
What are the Halloween colors?
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“The colors most notable from Halloween are of course orange and black,” explains Whiskey Stevens, doula and author of Rise of the Witch. If you’ve so much as set foot in a department or retail store as the holiday approaches, you’re likely well aware of this. Purple has made a more recent play to join the ranks of modern Halloween colors, and you’ll see smatterings of other hues—associated with companions of Halloween like autumn or monstrous creatures—around this time of year as well. You’ll certainly see them in popular Halloween costume ideas.
History of Halloween colors
In the early days of Halloween-like celebrations, black actually was supposed to be more sad than spooky. Halloween can trace its origins back to a pagan celebration called Samhain (pronounced sow-win), a ritual that the ancient Celts celebrated in late October and early November. This is because it was approximately halfway between the fall equinox and winter solstice. “Black is a representation of the dark months that come with winter,” explains Stevens.
But the true symbolic significance of black had to do with death, as did the holiday. “It is believed that during Samhain the veil between worlds grows thin, making it easier for those who wish to communicate with spirits and ancestors,” says Stevens. So the celebration would also include tributes and offerings to deceased ancestors, and celebrants wore deep black mourning dress.
Orange is a little more self-explanatory, but it also has to do with the particular time of year. Again, Samhain was ushering in the harvest time; people would have seen the trees turn orange after months of greenery. But the orange also has to do with another important component of the ancient Samhain celebrations: fire. “Orange is representative of the fire that burns during the festival of Samhain and during the winter months,” Stevens explains. “It also corresponds to the leaves that have changed color and of the harvest itself.” The ancient Celts would light community fires while leaving the fires in their own hearths to burn out. The fires could also be rituals to help ward off evil spirits while the gateway between the living and the dead was weak. And those fires certainly would have been orange!
Sometimes you’ll see purple creep its way into a decorative (or spooky!) Halloween scene. For one, purple is a great color to use to show a dark, shadowy sky, and things can be a bit more visible on it than a completely black background (like a black cat, for instance!). You may also see purple in witches’ robes or hats. But Stevens says that there’s no concrete reason for the prominence of purple—just a general historical association with the spooky. “Purple shows up in many places throughout history as a color of both royalty and a color of mystery and magic,” she explains. “During Halloween we see images of witches, monsters, and ghouls, all images that have been, at one point or another, associated with being fairly spooky and scary. In witchcraft practices today such as color magic, purple corresponds with intuition, knowledge, psychic ability, and power.”
Sometimes the general hues of fall make their way into Halloween celebrations or decorations as well. These, too, can trace their association to Samhain: “Other colors associated with Samhain are yellow, brown, and gold, all symbolic of the harvest time—and we do see these colors during what most would consider Halloween,” says Stevens. But this is more due to their association with fall in general; they’re likely to pop up around Thanksgiving as well.
Other haunting hues
While black, orange, and now purple will certainly dominate any Halloween display, you’ll see hints of other colors as well due to their association with prominent Halloween monsters. Skeletons are big-time Halloween symbols, so they’ll add a chilling bone-white to the mix. Bloody vampires might throw in a splash of red, and you may even see some Frankenstein green. But you wouldn’t associate those colors with Halloween outside of those chilling contexts the way you would with the black-and-orange pairing!
Today, our Halloween traditions range from sinister to cheerful and everything in between. For more about the history of Halloween, and how ancient rituals gave us what we have today, read up on the chilling history of the haunted holiday.
- Whiskey Stevens, doula and author of Rise of the Witch
- History.com: Samhain.