Yesterday morning, I set out to make my family a holiday cup of cheer in the form of mulled apple cider. This recent addition to our holiday tradition, brings us together while we sip, savor, and enjoy the taste of the holiday season. It was the aroma though that triggered a memory from my childhood.
The cinnamon and cloves were warming and delightful. But, it was the scent of the orange skin as it was grated into the pot, that filled my mind with images of Christmases past. I find that an aroma, whether pleasant or otherwise, is often times, a direct route to a memory. And so it is with oranges, Christmas, and me.
This aroma memory got me wondering about why the connection is so vivid. I fondly remember the family tradition of a Christmas orange in the toe of my stocking. A tradition that continues today with my family. The smell of a sweet and juicy orange still lingers around the tree each Christmas morning.
I recall the orange peeling contests my sister and I used to have. The goal being to peel the entire orange in one piece. If successful, we make a wish that is sure to come true. I must admit, every time I peel a mandarin, a little piece of joy bubbles up within me.
I left the spices to cool in the strainer. The aroma of the apple cider lingering in the kitchen. I decided to investigate the historical reason behind oranges, Christmas, and stockings. It seems that Japanese mandarin oranges made their way into Canada in the late 1800’s. Immigrant families received gifts of the sweet fruit for the New Year from family still living in Japan.
The fruit was shared among neighbors and friends and a new tradition of the Christmas orange was born. A tradition, that until recently, was only available during the month of December in Canada. The oranges originally arrived in Western Canada, but their nationwide popularity grew dramatically. By 1885, a Vancouver based distribution company began importing and distributing wooden crates of Japanese oranges. Each orange, wrapped in green tissue, was sent by train across Canada.
The wooden crates the oranges arrived in became as well known as the oranges themselves. Once depleted, the crates were widely used for other household purposes such as step stools and storage bins. Distribution of mandarin oranges continued each year. Their arrival often announced as a front page news story in the local paper. In later years, orange painted rail box cars announced the journey of the much anticipated Christmas treat.
World War II brought about an interruption in the delivery of the Christmas oranges. With Canada and Japan on opposing sides of the conflict, oranges and all other trade opportunities vanished. Soon after the Empire of Japan surrendered to the Allied Forces in September of 1945, trade negotiations began again. Mandarin oranges were once again an integral part of the Canadian Christmas experience.
While digging a little deeper into the Christmas orange connection, I came across a few stories of how an orange in a stocking came to be. The first takes us back to the days when Saint Nicholas was not yet a saint but a bishop instead. Bishop Nicholas was a generous and wealthy man. He became aware of a shopkeeper who did not have the means to acquire a dowry for his three daughters to be married. The outcome for the daughters in that era would have been disastrous as they would have no means to support themselves without their father or a husband.
It has been said that bishop Nicholas visited the home one evening and tossed three bags of gold down the chimney. The gold was to be used as dowry payments for the three daughters. The daughters stockings happened to be hanging by the fire to dry. The bags of gold magically found their way into each stocking. Some believe the oranges we place in the toes of our stockings today, symbolize the gold bishop Nicholas left so many years ago.
Another theory of more recent times comes to us from the Great Depression of the 1930’s. Times were tough. Families were struggling. Christmas was another strain on already limited resources. Many families put an orange in their children’s stocking as no toys could be afforded. By giving an orange, parents knew that each of their children would receive a sweet gift on Christmas morning. The importance of a Christmas orange in a desperate time in history surely has impacted generations of tradition.
The segments of an orange are said to symbolize the season of giving. An orange is a very shareable offering. By taking one apart and sharing it with others, we demonstrate our willingness to share what we have with others.
Whether it is family tradition, a generation of sharing, or the stories of old, a Christmas orange is more than just an orange. It is a sweet, juicy, magical, bit of fruit with an aroma rich with tradition.