Oranges & Stockings

A favorite for Christmas morning is finding what is inside of your stocking. It is the giddiness of opening tiny presents and treats that fit into a little sock, which makes it an exciting tradition. With opening your Christmas stocking, there is usually the tradition of finding an orange or clementine at the end.


“We always got an orange in our Christmas stocking along with coins, walnuts, sometimes a box of animal crackers and of course a candy cane. The sweetness and rarity of oranges in the winter was indeed an almost exotic treat. My father had a certain way – almost a ritual – of removing the “orange peel” and sectioning the orange that fascinated us. It made the eating even better! Christmas is for remembering…” – Marie


My grandfather, Paul Kelley, who was born in 1900, would always tell my brothers and I about getting an orange for Christmas. It is a cherished memory of mine that has outlasted the blur of toy-discovering frenzy that comprised so much of my early Christmas memories. I had always taken his tales as a cautionary contrast to the jackpot we were reveling in at the time. It wasn’t until much later that I became aware of the tradition. Traditions are like amazing threads that run through time in a divinely sumlime way, they can easily be overlooked, but they are certianly better cherished. I still think of my grandfather every year when I see the chocolate holiday oranges appear in the supermarkets. – Mike Flynn


History of the Orange


“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.



Stocking Orange 1


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.





History of Stockings


The tradition of hanging stockings at Christmas began with a story that is said to have happened 17 centuries ago in Turkey.

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.

This led to the custom of children hanging stockings or putting out shoes, eagerly awaiting gifts from Saint Nicholas. Sometimes the story is told with gold balls instead of bags of gold. That is why three gold balls, sometimes represented as oranges, are one of the symbols for St. Nicholas.

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.

The tradition of Christmas stockings was introduced in America by the Dutch. It is said that in the 16th Century, the children staying in Holland kept their clogs, filled with straw, by the hearth for the reindeer.

At the same time, they placed a treat for ‘Sinterklaas’ (Santa Claus) near the fireplace in the house. As a return gift, the Sinterklaas used to leave gifts for the children.

With time, the clogs became stockings and Sinterklaas became Santa Claus.




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.




Source: Why’d You Eat That

Photography: Zoella and Laura Ashley


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