This wintry colour evokes crisp forest walks and Christmas celebrations
Discover the history of fir green, nature’s most wintry hue
Each year, in a pattern as regular as the change of the seasons, when the garish orange and black tide of Halloween recedes two other colours rise up in their place. If red reminds us of the winter cheer to be found by our hearths, fir green is redolent of what happens out of doors during winter. It evokes snow-silent forests, the smell of resinous needles underfoot, and the feeling of noses pinched by the cold. Of course, it also brings to mind the fir trees we drag indoors in time for Christmas.
Unlike red, whose associations with winter’s festivities are relatively recent, fir green’s claim to be the season’s hue goes back before the birth of Christ. Around the winter solstice, when the night is at its longest and every moment of daylight feels precious, the Romans celebrated Saturnalia. Dedicated to Saturn, the god of agriculture and harvest, the festival was one of misrule and merriment: servants became masters, gifts of evergreen branches were exchanged, and any speeches given had to make people laugh. Further north, Druids and Vikings also incorporated dark-green foliage into their celebrations of the year’s turning point.
The use of fir trees themselves came a little later. Although the origins of the Christmas tree are hotly contested, one popular tale involves Saint Boniface, the 1st-century bishop responsible for converting most of Germania (the Roman term that described swathes of central Europe, including Germany and the Low Countries). According to legend, upon coming across an oak sacred to the god Thor, Boniface immediately chopped it down. When the local pagans objected vociferously, he presented them with a fir tree that he claimed was a symbol of Christ, thus allowing them to carry on much as they had before. Boniface’s pragmatism was not universally appreciated. Tertullian, an early Christian author and near contemporary of the bishop’s, took a very dim view of tree veneration. ‘Let them over whom the fires of hell are imminent, affix to their posts laurels doomed presently to burn,’ he fumed.
Thankfully, fir green has since been welcomed in from the cold. Because of the paucity of dyes and colourants available before the Industrial Revolution, artists and designers struggled to get reliable greens. But in 1775, while studying arsenic, a Swedish scientist called Carl Wilhelm Scheele discovered a family of greens that could be used to colour everything from house paints to confectionery. Fir green became a darling of the Arts and Crafts movement: many of William Morris’s early designs, for example, are symphonies on the theme of evergreen foliage. It makes a good foil for other colours, too, which is why this shade of green is often used on museum walls. And while some can find it overpowering in their homes, it has been embraced in furniture and soft furnishings. Kathleen May, a textile artist who uses natural dyes to colour her fabrics, mixes indigo and chlorophyllin (the green pigment found in plants) to create cushions the shade of a misty Nordic forest. And the elegant curves of Gubi’s ‘Grand Piano’ sofa sing in unctuous green velvet. Rich and saturated, this is a colour that feels dignified and timeless, but never staid. So while it might feel especially relevant now, perhaps we should remember that, like a puppy, fir green isn’t just for Christmas.
Paints to try ‘Hunter Dunn’ matt emulsion, £42.50 for 2.5 litres, Paint & Paper Library ( paintandpaperlibrary.com). ‘Brompton Road’ matt emulsion, £42 for 2.5 litres, Mylands (mylands.co.uk). ‘Scottish Pine’ non-drip gloss, £15.49 for 750 millilitres, Crown Paints (crownpaints.co.uk)
Rich and saturated, fir green is a colour that feels dignified and timeless
PANTONE ® 343 C