Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Seeing Red: The Color of Valentine's Day


The traditional color for the Valentine's holiday is red and variations of that shade: lavender, pink, purple, fuschia, scarlet, crimson, and many more. Which got me thinking about the color itself and how it winds through our speech and our superstitions.

Seeing red, for example. Apparently this is a fairly recent saying, as such things go, and could have come from a quote in a book published in 1873, "like a red rag to a bull." Another argument is that it came from an American expression of the early 20th century, "seeing things red." It is generally accepted that when extremely angry, some people do actually see things shaded with red. It could possibly derive from the related saying, "makes the blood boil."

Then there is the red cent, as in "he'll not inherit a red cent from me." The cent, or penny, has been made of copper for centuries, and copper has a decidedly red color. So not giving a red cent means giving very little indeed.

Dragging a red herring across a path currently means trying to distract or misdirect, and the phrase came into being at least as early as 1697, when it was mentioned in a book on hunting that a red herring could be used to train hounds to follow a scent. That's puzzling, given that today we use it to mean throwing someone off, not leading them to, a trail. The confusion apparently started when a writer in 1807 misinterpreted the earlier book, and thought it meant to use the red herring scent to cover another scent with the stronger smell of the red herring. There is no such fish as a red herring; the term refers to herring which have been cured and smoked to make kippers, and these have a strong, singular odor.

A local school calls their sports teams the "Red Devils." Over the years this has caused some objections in our religious county, but there is another meaning for the term that could also explain where the team name came from. According to the Dictionary of Forces' Slang: 1939-1945 by Eric Partridge, "Red Devils" meant two things in WWII: first, it referred to members of the First Airborne Division for the red berets they wore and for their fighting abilities. The second use of the term referred to Italian hand grenades which were painted red, described by Keith Douglas (1920-1944) writer of Alamein to Zem Zem), as "bombastic little crackers that will blow a man's hand off and make a noise like the crack of doom." Douglas died three days after the Normandy invasion in which he took part; his book of poetry was published posthumously in 1946.


There are many more idioms and sayings about red, but what about superstitions?

Edwin Harris (1855-1906) Cornish Cottage Garden
Fishermen believed (and some still do) that meeting a red-haired woman on the way to work was very bad luck.

Adraen van Stalbemt, 1580-1662, Flemish artist)
 Red thread tied around a person or livestock, was protection from witches and evil, as this old rhyme tells it: Rowan tree and red thread, Make the witches lose their speed. (The Rowan was also believed to have powerful powers.) This belief goes back before 390 AD, when it was mentioned by St. John Chrysostom of Antioch as an unchristian way to protect children from evil.

An 1880 saying warned that scattering red rose petals on the ground betokens an early death, and mixing red and white flowers in the same vase indicates the same.

Beware of wearing red for your wedding! An old saying warns that Marry in red, soon be dead. 

A pregnant woman frightened by fire will give birth to a red-haired child.

Sprinkling red pepper on cards will remove the bad luck from them (Gamblers, take note!).

This might be useful to cooks: Drop a red apple into a greasy chicken you are cooking, and the grease will "go to" the apple. Whatever that means.

An apple wreath in the Museum of Magic and Witchcraft in Boscastle, Cornwall.
Apples for knowledge, red ribbons to ward off evil.
The color red is considered the color of happiness and luck in some cultures; in China it is often featured in decorations for holidays, and money is sometimes given in red envelopes for luck.

There are many stories around the world featuring red birds. For example, The Firebird from Russia,  Native American legends about the Cardinal, woodpeckers with red heads, the Robin In Egyptian myths the Phoenix is a familiar story

Even folk medicine has its red cures, like red clover, which is believed to help indigestion, tuberculosis and hives. Violet leaves and red clover were used to make a poultice for cancer (I assume skin cancer?). Red clover flowers and bloody butcher (red) corn, made into tea, were also believed to dry up a tumor.  Or, you can mash up red worms to make a poultice for rheumatic joints. Ewww. I prefer the suggestion to soak red pepper in lamp oil and using that to rub on rheumatism.

Boiling red corncobs in water and drinking the resulting tea before bed will cure night sweats.

If the first ear of corn harvested is red, there will be a wedding before there is a death.

Enough already! I think this could be long enough for a book all of its own, just the lore surrounding the color red. I admit that red is one of my favorite colors, right there with yellow and green. So I will take the view of the Chinese and the Native Americans about it being the color of happiness. And maybe tie a red string here or there just in case there be any evil lurking about.

Whats interesting to me is that none of the folklore or superstition refers to love, love potions, love charms, or anything I would consider romantic about this color. The connection, of course, is the heart, where love dwells according to popular belief. And the heart (and the blood that feeds it) is almost always depicted as red.

Next post? All about Valentine's Day itself.

Copyright Susanna Holstein. All rights reserved. No Republication or Redistribution Allowed without attribution to Susanna Holstein.

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