Orange You Glad It’s Not Coal?

By Tawny Maya McCray

November 15, 2016 5 min read

Putting oranges in Christmas stockings is a tradition dating back several generations. Some say the oranges symbolize the gold left by St. Nicholas. Others believe the tradition harks back to when oranges were considered a rare treat in the dark of winter. Whatever its origin, the citrusy custom continues to be passed down from one family member to the next.

"Our family still does this today," says photographer Jennifer Huber. "Back in the day, fruit was hard to come by, especially during the winter. And an orange at Christmas was expensive and a huge treat. And it fills the toe of your sock perfectly."

Ann McCarthy, a teacher, says growing up, her parents always put oranges in her stocking, too.

"I just thought it was because they had come from Oregon, and were so happy to have citrus in December," McCarthy says. "And it wasn't more candy."

McCarthy says her mom, now 86 years old, lived in Oregon logging camps during the Depression. She would describe how fruit and nuts were a Christmas tradition and oranges were a very special fruit.

"She said when she was very young in Bridal Veil, a Chinese family, maybe a worker with her dad, gave her family a small crate of oranges for Christmas."

Jeff Labovitz, regional director of the East and Horn of Africa for the International Organization for Migration, says his grandma's parents were farmers in rural South Dakota and for them getting an orange in winter was a real treat.

"I remember her telling me this is what they got for Christmas," Labovitz, 49, recalls of his grandma, adding that she was one of 17 children. "She moved to LA when she was a teenager and couldn't believe the amount oranges."

According to an article from The Kitchn, "Here's Why We Put Oranges in Stockings at Christmas," the author, Kelli Foster, has "uncovered four explanations for how the tradition of placing an orange in stockings came to be."

The first reason for this tradition goes back hundreds of years, to St. Nicholas. He was born in Patara, which is now part of present-day Turkey. Though he inherited a large sum of money after losing both his parents as a young man, St. Nicholas pledged his life to help others and became a bishop.

According to one popular myth, St. Nicholas learned of an impoverished man who was unable to secure suitors for his three daughters because he didn't have enough money for their dowries. St. Nicholas went to the house of the poor man and tossed three bags of gold down the chimney -- one for each of the daughters. The gold landed in each of the girls' hanging stockings, which were left to dry by the fire. Oranges hidden in the toes of stockings are symbolic of the gold sacks that were left for the daughters.

Another explanation for the festive fruit is that "during the Great Depression of the 1930s, money was tight, and many families simply didn't have the means to buy gifts," says Foster. So among the pencils or handmade clothes, it was a luxurious treat to find a sweet orange, a few candies or some walnuts hidden your Christmas stocking.

A third theory is that before globalization and improvements in transportation and infrastructure, fresh oranges were incredibly difficult to come by, especially in the north. Discovering one of these fruits in your stocking was like finding a silver bell from Santa's sleigh -- a wondrous way of celebrating the holiday.

And finally, yet another explanation for oranges in stockings is "that December is the season of giving, and the orange segments represent the ability to share what you have with others," says Foster.

Regardless of how the tradition began, many people say that they will continue to add oranges to Christmas stockings for futures generations to enjoy.

"Mom always made sure that there were oranges available at home during the holidays," says retired businesswoman Becky Armstrong, 72. "I still fill stockings for my daughters and granddaughter with a real orange and a chocolate orange."

Carol Schrammel, 60, says she's doing the same with her two adult sons and two grandsons, ages 7 and 11.

"It was definitely a tradition in our house when I was growing up and one that we continued with our own kids and grandkids."

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