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Colors can have a significant impact on people. Not only do certain hues have a psychological effect on our emotions, but they often have historical and cultural meanings around the world. Depending on the region, the color black might mean the celebration of new life as opposed to loss. Or, in some places, a color like orange, which the Western world closely associates with seasonal changes, can hold prestigious spiritual power. Here are some of the various meanings and traditions behind eight different colors around the world.
The color blue’s dominance in nature as the shade of both the sea and sky give it a serene quality; this is harnessed by numerous airlines and banks in the Western Hemisphere to foster calmness and trust. But elsewhere around the world, blue has significant religious meaning. In Jewish culture, the hue’s prevalence in nature makes it the holy color of Judaism; in Hinduism, it’s the skin color of gods such as Vishnu, Krishna, and Shiva, and represents protection from evil. In many Latin American countries, which have large Catholic populations, blue — the color often seen worn by the Virgin Mary — symbolizes faith and good health.
The color green shares a strong association with nature around the world, but its cultural significance often varies. In the West, green is often associated with wealth and envy. In Ireland, however, it’s the color of shamrocks, leprechauns, and good luck. In Chinese culture, while green often signifies fertility, it is also considered the color of infidelity when worn by a man. Green also holds significant religious importance in Islam. In the Qur’an, the hue represents paradise, and it was supposedly the Prophet Muhammad’s favorite color.
White is often associated with purity and peace, and is commonly seen in Western culture as the color of traditional wedding dresses. The custom is thought to date back more than 2,000 years, when brides wore white tunics during the Roman Republic. But it wasn't until Queen Victoria appeared in a white silk gown at her wedding to Prince Albert in 1840 that the popular fashion took hold. The queen chose white as a symbol of both the tact with which she would rule the country, as well as her chaste heart. However, in many Eastern Asian countries, such as China, white symbolizes death, and is often worn at funerals and other mourning rituals.
While Western culture favors red as the bold color of love and danger, its meaning varies elsewhere around the world. In Chinese culture, red symbolizes prosperity, joy, and good luck, and is often worn by a bride at her wedding. Chinese people also traditionally wear red during the Lunar New Year, when red envelopes filled with money are gifted to family and friends. In South Africa, however, red is the color of mourning, with the red section of the country’s flag representing the bloodshed of the Apartheid era. Red also happens to be the most significant color in Indian culture and the Hindu religion. Worn by several deities and seen as the representation of the life force and purity of blood and fire, red is the Indian color of fertility, divine energy, and both sensuality and purity; it is often the color of a bride’s wedding dress and henna worn on her wedding day, and it is also the color of the fabric that wraps a body before cremation.
Yellow is the color of the bright, warm sun, and in some cultures, its meaning is just as positive. In Thailand, where every day of the week has its own color, Monday’s yellow is considered the most important shade because it represents the birthday of the recently deceased former King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand, who was born on Monday, December 5, 1927. In Africa, the vibrant hue represents the richness of the land and is seen as a symbol of wealth. In Japan, yellow has represented bravery since the War of Dynasties started in 1357 and warriors wore yellow chrysanthemums as a golden badge of courage. It doesn’t evoke cheerful feelings everywhere, however. In Western culture, the color yellow is commonly used as a color of caution on school buses, construction tape, and road signs, since studies have proven the color attracts attention. Yellow is also considered the color of jealousy and betrayal in France, an association that dates back to the 10th century, when captured criminals were put in cells with painted yellow doors.
In many cultures, purple or violet is the color of death or mourning. For devout Catholics in Brazil, deep purple is an intrinsic part of their spirituality, and mourners wear the color to funerals to honor Jesus Christ’s suffering. In Thailand, widows wear purple to funerals as a sign of sorrow (other funeral attendees should wear black), and it’s a common color at funerals in Italy as well. Of course, purple is also commonly viewed as a color fit for royals. Purple dye was, for centuries, rare and difficult to produce. The scarcity of the dye resulted in purple clothing being too expensive for commoners, and it was instead reserved for only kings, queens, and nobility.
Most countries don’t embrace a national color the way the Netherlands does with orange. The significance of the color dates back to the history of the House of Orange-Nassau, the Dutch royal family. To this day, orange is worn for national holidays, and by most of the country’s sports teams. Orange is also very important in many Eastern religions and cultures. In the Hindu faith, orange represents purity, while in Buddhism, monks and many men of all ages wear orange robes to represent the pursuit of illumination and perfection.
Black most commonly represents death and mourning in many cultures, but it also signifies formality and elegance in much of the Western world. While many associate black with death, and the same is true in the Middle East, ancient Egyptians viewed the shade as a symbol of rebirth, thanks to the fertile black soil that washed up and renewed the land when the Nile regularly flooded.