Within most Christian traditions, certain colours are designated for use at particular times of the Church year. This is just a very brief summary about when each colour is used and if you are in any doubt about the traditions of your own church you should seek further information from other sources.
When describing vestments or paraments by their colour, it is assumed to be the colour of the main fabric. Any decoration or ornamentation may be in a wide spectrum of other colours. For example a stole would still be described as a white stole even if the embroidery and lining are in red, so long as the main visible fabric is white.
White represents innocence, purity, joy, triumph, and glory and is used for the major festivals of Christmas and Easter and for certain important occasions such as major saints days, patronal festivals and weddings. In many traditions, white is used for ordinations. White includes ivory, cream and pale beige colours and does not usually mean optic white.
Gold may be used instead of white. It can vary from a deep cream through bright yellow to a light orange to straw or even pale tan.
Red signifies passion, blood, fire, God’s love in the gift of the Holy Spirit, and martyrdom. It is normally used for Pentecost and for feast days of martyr saints. In some traditions it is the colour used for ordination. It is usually a fairly bright red but can be closer to burgundy.
Purple (or violet) is the colour used for the penitential seasons of Lent and Advent. It is also used for the sacrament of confession. Some traditions make a distinction between a red (Roman) purple for Lent and a violet (blue) purple for Advent. It is also sometimes used for funerals.
Rose may be used on the 4th Sunday of Lent (sometimes called Laetare Sunday, Mothering Sunday or Refreshment Sunday) and also the 3rd Sunday of Advent (sometimes called Gaudete Sunday - from the Latin word Gaudete (Rejoice), the first word of the Introit). The colour varies a lot from pale dusky pink through to a pinkish purple and seems to be a matter of personal taste.
Green - the colour of life - is used for Ordinary Time, i.e. those days that are not otherwise considered special. There are many different shades and tones of green, but usually it is quite a strong bright green that will be used for vestments and paraments. It is the colour that is used for most of the year. For some people there is a preference for keeping green vestments quite plain with nothing special about them. For others, because it is in almost constant use it is seen as worth being as decorative as possible.
Blue is used in some traditions throughout Advent as an alternative to purple. It is also sometimes used for feast days of Our Lady, though more usually these would be white but with blue trimmings. Many Presbyterian and Methodist traditions use blue as an all seasons colour.
Black is the traditional colour for funerals. It should also be used for Good Friday, All Souls Day and any masses offered for the departed.
Multi-coloured fabrics are sometimes used as all seasons both for vestments and paraments. These tend to be very ornate fabrics and there is seldom any further decoration other than perhaps the addition of a gold cross. It is often used as an altar frontal, with interchangeable superfrontals in the different colours.
Ruth Black, The Workshop, Inchmore, Kirkhill, Inverness IV5 7PX