Donald Trump

Here’s why some people find Melania Trump’s blood-red Christmas trees so strangely creepy

  • A psychologist says the unnatural-looking decorations bring to mind ‘blood or rage, shock’
  • However, the White House says the crimson trees suggest ‘valour and bravery’
PUBLISHED : Thursday, 29 November, 2018, 12:59am
UPDATED : Thursday, 29 November, 2018, 4:54am

Shortly after Melania Trump unveiled the White House’s Christmas decor on Monday, one key design element – a “forest” of cone-shaped, crimson trees – spurred tongue-in-cheek uproar on Twitter.

These 40 meme-ready trees were compared to car-wash brushes, juxtaposed with iconic blood waves in Stephen King’s The Shining and Photoshopped to don white bonnets – a clear reference to the long-suffering women in Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale.

While much of the lampooning was surely prompted by disdain toward her husband’s policies, several psychology experts said that Trump’s holiday aesthetic may just be inherently jarring for the human psyche.

Dr Toby Israel, a pioneer of design psychology, said the heavily red set-up detaches viewers from nature, thus the psychological comfort associated with the natural world.

“So, for example, we have a green Christmas tree, that’s about nature – and the best that nature has to offer,” whereas with these towering red plants: “I’m not going to recognise that is a tree, [as] something that connects us to the universe.”

The red trees also “have the association of not just being different, but “during an era that feels particularly violent and divided, Israel said.

The Washington Post pointed out that per the first lady’s office: “The choice of red is an extension of the pales, or stripes found in the presidential seal designed by our Founding Fathers. It is a symbol of valour and bravery.”

Dr Marc Berman, a psychologist at the University of Chicago, has studied links between human cognition and interacting with nature. When people aren’t able to interact directly with nature, they may still see some “restorative” impacts by viewing “faithful representations of nature”, such as photos.

But … “there’s nothing really natural” about these red trees, he said. “The low-level fractal structure in things is still there, but the colour is completely artificial – so everybody knows it’s artificial.”

Dr Sally Augustin, an environmental psychologist who runs a science-based design consultancy, said red could have cognitive and cultural significance. Alone, red can flag danger; alongside green, it is an innocuous part of the traditional Christmas palate. The reaction may relate to how one experiences it, Augustin said.

If a shocking red were present alongside some cosy smells (such as baking gingerbread) and heart-warming holiday music, “the total sensory experience of being in that area” could be quite different than just seeing the colour.

Dr Susan Painter, a founder of design psychology, said the extensive red could throw people into a sort of holiday season ennui.

“From a psychological point of view, Christmas is an extremely traditional holiday, and the traditions themselves – their familiarity – provide a sense of certainty that can be particularly important in these quite chaotic and uncertain times,” Painter said in an email.

“By going against that tradition, the red trees ‘disrupt’ what we think of as the meaning of Christmas; the familiarity, the comfort, the easing of stress and uncertainty, the respite from the rush of events,” she said.

Lori Weitzner, a New York City-based designer whose “ode to colour” is considered an important exploration of popular palettes, said the trees’ tone is described in a chapter in her book Out Loud.

“That chapter is about going for it all the way, taking all kinds of risk – not caring what all the consequences may be,” Weitzner said. “The symbolism behind this very powerful, Out Loud is you’re all out there, ‘I don’t care what anybody thinks ’, do whatever it takes – go for it, go for it, go for it.”