GREENWICH, N.Y. — The Christmas season is here and people are busily trying to check-off the Christmas lists of family and friends. Though not as popular today, the orange was once synonymous with Christmastime. The fruit was a beloved gift and festive decoration during the holiday season.
It is believed that the orange originated in Southern Asia. Ancient Chinese sources mention cultivating oranges and are some of the earliest references of the fruit. Due to their sweetness and bright color some ancient Asian cultures associated oranges with joy, good luck, and even magical properties making them sought after gifts. Increases in contact and trade slowly brought the orange westward through the Middle East and to Europe. The Moors likely brought the fruit to Spain and by the 15th century the orange had been introduced to the entire Mediterranean region. The orange made its way to America by way of the Spanish who established it in present-day Florida and Mexico in the 16th century. Later the Spanish brought the orange to present-day California in the early 18th century.
The orange is most associated with Christmas by way of the tradition of Christmas stockings. The tradition of hanging stockings stems from a legend about Saint Nicholas (the real person who the fictional Santa Claus is based on). Saint Nicholas lived in the 3rd century A.D. and was the Bishop of Myra in present-day Turkey. The best-known legend about him involves a widowed father and his three daughters. According to the legend the man was poor and could not provide dowries for his daughters. Without dowries his daughters were unable to get married and would likely be forced into slavery. Upon hearing the family’s dilemma, Nicholas secretly threw three sacks of gold through an open window on separate occasions providing a dowry for each of the daughters enabling them to get married and saving them from slavery. Depending on the telling, the gold landed in stockings or shoes left out to dry in the family’s home.
In homage to this story, a tradition started in which children put out stockings or shoes which would then be filled with various kinds of goodies. The tradition did not become firmly established until the early to mid-1800s. Instead of putting actual gold into stockings oranges were often inserted as presents to represent the gold.
Oranges were considered a rare and expensive fruit. In Europe they had to be acquired from merchants in Spain and Italy. In the United States, outside of orange-growing areas, they required much transportation to get to markets across the country. Because of their expense and exotic nature, oranges were reserved for special occasions or gift giving holidays, mainly Christmas.
The orange was also seen at Christmas in the form of a pomander. Pomanders were a mixture of spices or ambergris designed to emit a pleasant smell. From Medieval times through the 1700s pomanders were kept in small sacks or oval shaped containers and worn by a person to diffuse a good scent wherever they went. Later pomanders were hidden in the tops of physicians’ canes. The use of pomanders came from the belief that disease was spread by bad smells. By carrying the good smelling pomanders, it was believed that the disease carrying, bad scents would be kept at bay.
In Victorian England, and later the U.S., pomanders made from oranges studded with cloves appeared as Christmas ornaments or decorations for the home. Since the orange was a high-class item, the pomander was likely a luxurious gift given to be used during the Christmas season.
The orange’s connection with Christmas became even more solidified in the early 20th century. In 1908 the California Fruit Growers Exchange, a group designed to help promote and market California-grown citrus fruits, launched the Sunkist brand. The Sunkist brand gave oranges a greater reach nationwide. Their advertisements in the 1910s-1930s leaned into the tradition of gifting an orange at Christmas further linking the fruit to the holiday.
The orange’s appeal continued to grow during the Great Depression as well. In the economic hardship of the time, oranges were viewed as a rare affordable luxury. For many families an orange at Christmas was a highly sought after treat, and in many instances the only Christmas present someone would receive. Many who lived in that time remember the orange being a big deal at Christmastime because their family could not afford to have them any other time of the year. Along with it being a gift, the orange took on a mythical status for those who did not live in citrus-growing areas as it was associated with the sunny climes of California, sweetness, and prosperity. Because of these connotations the orange is sometimes called the “Fruit of the Great Depression.”
Through the latter half of the 20th century the tradition of giving oranges as a present faded as the fruit became more accessible to people. However, the orange still appears in some Christmas traditions around the world. For instance, in England some church services around Christmastime involve the Christingle. The Christingle consists of an orange with a candle inserted into the top it, red ribbon tied around it, and toothpicks with candies, nuts, or fruit inserted into the sides. This curious creation is meant to symbolize parts of Christian belief: the orange represents the world, the candle represents Jesus Christ, the red ribbon symbolizes the blood of Christ which was shed on the Cross for the sins of the world, and the toothpicks with goodies signify the bounty of God’s creation.
It is believed this tradition started in 1747 by the Moravian minister John de Watteville who used a candle with red ribbon to help better explain some of Jesus’s attributes to the children in his congregation. The tradition remained in the Moravian church from then on, however it did not catch on in England until 1968. A man named John Pensom organized a Christingle ceremony to raise money for a youth charity. It was at this time that the orange was added to the symbol. The event was a great hit and the Christingle has become a part of Christmas celebrations in England ever since.
As you go through your Christmas shopping this year, consider slipping an orange into a stocking for a gift that hearkens back to Christmases past.
Chandler Hansen grew up and lives in Easton, NY. He is a graduate of Gordon College where he earned a bachelor’s degree in History. He serves as a writer and editor for Morning Ag Clips.