The Orthodox Church traditionally uses different colors to mark the seasons of the liturgical year, certain feast days and other observances. The colors of clergy vestments, altar coverings and cloths on icon stands (proskynetaria) will often change to offer a visual clue of the season or the feast day.
According to Krista West, the rubrics for which color to use on what day initially provided only “two distinct categories”: bright and dark (Garments of Salvation, SVS Press, 2013, p. 169). Today, these categories have expanded, along with our understanding of color, the varieties of color available to us and the possible combinations of colors in fabrics. Consider the variety possible in the color red alone, let alone red in combination with other colors. There are local traditions as well. For example, for the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross (September 14), clergy in Greece and America often wear green vestments, while clergy in Jerusalem or on Mt. Athos wear red vestments. As a result, there are no universal or fixed practices, only general guidelines.
As Fr. Jon Magoulias writes, “the Greek Orthodox Church has no formal order determining colors for various feast days. Common practice, however, has defined the following colors.” (The Priest as Liturgist, Greek Orthodox Metropolis of San Francisco, 2010, p. 20). In the list that he offers, you can see some of the variations and how the principle of “dark” or “bright” is being applied:
- Gold or white for feast days of the Lord (red may be worn for the resurrection)
- Blue for feast days of the Theotokos
- Red or gold for feast days of the martyrs
- Green or gold for Palm Sunday, Pentecost, Monday of the Holy Spirit, the Elevation of the Holy Cross and the Veneration of the Holy Cross
- Purple for Lenten services (purple should not be worn on Sundays of Great Lent)
Many people attach symbolic meanings to the colors being used. In these cases, it’s best to consider the feast or season and its themes or persons and then consider what the color wants us to remember. Consider how green is used. For Palm Sunday, we can see a connection to the branches brought by the crowds. For the other feasts where green is often worn, we can see a connection to themes of “life-giving”: the life-giving cross, the lush themes in the hymns of Pentecost, etc. But we can also see why red could be worn for the feasts of the cross and Pentecost (or even the feasts of the martyrs): the shedding of blood, the tongues of fire. Purple is worn during Great Lent to denote the season’s penitential character. However, even during Great Lent, Sundays are still celebrations of the resurrection, so bright colors are worn instead of purple. Some parishes switch between purple and bright (usually gold) coverings on the altar table and proskynetaria during Lent on the weekends. White is a paschal color, associated with themes of baptism, light and joy. This joy is present in all the feasts of Christ. But red is also appropriate for Pascha as it is a color of royalty, given its richness and boldness. In icons, the Theotokos is usually dressed in blue. Thus, blue vestments are usually worn on her feasts. Blue is also often worn on Theophany, reminding us of the blessing of the waters.