One of the most exciting things for me about Christmas was my stocking. When I was living at home, “Santa” would creep upstairs at the wee hours of the morning and leave our stockings at the feet of our beds. I think that was “Santa’s” way of pacifying us. Give us a little sneak peak of what’s to come so “Santa” could sleep in. Now that I don’t live at my parents anymore, I miss waking up to a stocking. Growing up is the worst.
People always talk about getting oranges in their stockings. But when I think about it, we never actually got oranges at the foot of our stockings. We usually got a clementine or two, so there was some kind of citrus there.
“The orange is a 20-million-year-old (say paleobiologists) berry (say botanists) which is one of the five to six most important fruits in the world (say economists) and certainly among the most delicious (say gastronomists).” (Root, 303)
The tradition of oranges as Christmas gifts goes way back. They weren’t always stocking gifts though. In fact, they used to be a great novelty. In the 14th through 18th centuries, giving someone the gift of a perishable orange was indicative of how wealthy and influential you were. Oranges were luxury items that only the extremely wealthy could afford. This rarity and expensiveness made them the most impressive, perfect Christmas gift.
Oranges are native to southern China and India and are first mentioned in writing at the beginning of the Christian era in Chinese and Indian texts. They were known to the Romans as “Median apples” because they came from Persia. The juice was originally used as a medicine and to sharpen the tang of vinegar in food.
Seville oranges, which have a bitter taste, were discovered by Arabs and spread throughout Sicily and Spain. They planted the trees in the Persian methods – in irrigated gardens so they could be induced into bearing fruit in the dry, hot climate.
The first Englishmen to try oranges were probably those who crusaded with Richard Coeur-de-Lion in 1191-1192 in the fruit groves around Jaffa. Citrus came to England about 100 years later. In 1289, Queen Eleanor (former Princess of Castille) ordered 15 lemons, 7 oranges, 230 pomegranates, and dried fruit to be delivered by boat to England from Spain. The prices of the fruit were exorbitant, as were all southern European fruits at the time.
Sweet oranges came to Europe later via Genoese or Portuguese merchants from Arab lands. The same merchants also brought them to America.
Oranges were rare in Europe and quite expensive. Only the very rich could afford them. They and other citrus fruits were eaten fresh, but also made into a confection called “sitrenade,” which was most likely a succade (candied peel of any citrus species) made with lemons or oranges. They also learned to make marmalades.
From the 16th century onward, it became the fashion to build greenhouses called orangeries in French châteaux. The orangeries allowed potted orange trees to grow, despite the fact that Europe’s climate doesn’t support their development. Sir Francis Carew is said to be the first person to grow orange trees in Britain. He did it on his country estate at Beddington in Croydon sometime before 1562. However, this was a tricky and expensive undertaking. His oranges needed careful tending, so the practice of growing your own was not common.
When poorer people could afford an orange after saving up, it was a special treat. They ate their oranges primarily in pottages and pies during the 12 days of Christmas. Wealthier people ate them more often, especially on fasting days and during Lent. Because there was no such thing as refrigeration and quick delivery, fresh citrus was hard for the average person to come by.
By the late 19th century, transportation had improved to the point where oranges became slightly less expensive. They were being grown all over southern Europe and the Mediterranean, as well as in California and Florida in the United States. Oranges moved from being that exquisite, uberluxurious Christmas gift to being the exciting treat in the bottom of children’s stockings. The practice of giving an orange in a stocking came from a story about a rather well known Christmas figure, Saint Nicholas.
A man, born in the 4th century, was living on the shore of a village in Turkey. His name was Nicholas. Nicholas inherited a large fortune, but spent most of his life and money helping the poor and the persecuted. Eventually he became a bishop of the new Christian church.
One day, Nicholas met a poor man who could not provide dowries for his three daughters, so they could not get married. Nicholas, being both charitable and kind, decided to do something about it. He came to their home the next night and threw three bags of gold for their dowries down the chimney. The bags landed in the stockings the girls had hung to dry in front of the fireplace. In the morning, the girls found the gold in their stockings and were overjoyed. They were now able to marry. Oranges symbolize the bags of gold at the bottom of the stockings.
There are some accounts of this story that say rather than throwing the gold deftly down the chimney, he snuck into their house at night. While looking for a place to hide the gold, he spotted the stockings and placed them there. Apparently, old Saint Nick creeps around young ladies’ homes at night, giving them money. Someone should tell Mrs. Claus.
In paintings, bishop Nicholas is usually wearing red ceremonial robs and miter, while holding a bishop’s staff and three gold balls, coins, or pieces of fruit (most likely oranges). When Nicholas died, he was canonized and made into Saint Nicholas.
So in the 1880’s, oranges were a seasonally available winter fruit. Getting an orange in the middle of winter seemed very exotic. It’s symbol of the sun, so getting the orange is like getting a little bit of summer right smack in the middle of winter.
Yet, poor families were still not able to able to afford an orange:
“In the nineteenth century poor children dreamed all the year round of getting the precious, scented present of an orange for Christmas. Most of them did not know what an orange tasted like, or even if they would dare eat that golden, almost magical fruit.” (Toussaint-Samat, 659)
As time went on, they became more widely available. However, during the Great Depression, an orange was again a big deal and a great Christmas gift because you couldn’t afford one during the year. Everything was homegrown and homemade because that was the cheapest way. Oranges weren’t possible to home-grow if you didn’t live in California or Florida.
Today, oranges are available all year round and children don’t know the rich history of the orange as a Christmas gift. That makes it pretty hard to be excited that you got a piece of fruit in your stocking.
Also, watch this:
Keep eating and asking, my friends.
-“Oranges.” The Cook’s Book of Ingredients. Ed. Laura Nickroll and Scarlett O’Hara. London: DK Pub., 2010. 450. Print.