By Brenda Eubanks Burnette
The orange became part of Christmastime traditions in the 19th century, along with the custom of hanging stockings near the fire. According to Emily Spivack, who wrote about the origin of the Christmas stocking for Smithsonian.com, the tradition of hanging stockings dates back to around 1823, when it is mentioned in the poem “Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas,” later known as “The Night Before Christmas.” The poem notes that Santa Claus “fill’d all the stockings” before popping up the chimney.
But many believe the tradition of putting an orange in a Christmas stocking started with the legend of the three coins of gold that the Bishop of Myra, the real Saint Nicholas, gave to three poor maidens to use as dowries — thus saving them from being sold into slavery.
The story goes that Saint Nicholas threw the gold into their house through a window in the dead of night, and one landed in a stocking drying by the fire. “From this legendary incident the custom grew for the older members of the family secretly to place gifts in shoes, stockings or some kind of receptacle for the children, who, finding them on the following morning, were quite willing to give St. Nicholas the credit,” according to an article in the Georgia Review by William Porter Kellam.
That may also be the reason people started putting an orange in the toe of the stocking — as oranges were considered rare and exotic during the cold winter months. “At the end of the nineteenth century in Europe, when the custom of gift giving for Christmas had spread, the orange was a rare and expensive fruit,” notes “The Little Book of Christmas” author Dominique Foufelle. “Oranges became a luxury for families of modest means who reserved them as a gift for their children.”
In Eastern history, orange trees have come to symbolize prosperity and happiness. The Chinese word for tangerine stems from the word “luck,” and the word for an orange sounds similar to the word “wealth.” Even today in China and Japan, bright orange fruits are used to adorn homes and shops to welcome the coming year with good fortune. Another theory about the tradition is that December is the season of giving, and the orange segments represent the ability to share what you have with others.
Gift fruit shippers throughout Florida have continued the tradition of promoting fresh fruit as a great Christmas gift for many reasons. According to a gift fruit promotion from Hale Groves, “It’s never out of style, it fits the taste of kids and adults alike, and fresh fruit delivers a wide range of health benefits.” Poinsettia Groves promotes its fruit as “Tasteful Gifts to Give and to Get for Enjoyment and Health.”
Regardless of how the tradition began, it has been a good one over the years. Merry Christmas and may the new year be a fruitful one for all of you!
Brenda Eubanks Burnette is executive director of the Florida Citrus Hall of Fame. Pieces of the Past is presented in partnership with Florida Southern College’s McKay Archives Center in Lakeland.