(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on December 6, 2008. We hope you enjoy it as we count down to Christmas but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions and comments.)
Where did the tradition come from of having Santa put an orange in the toe of each stocking on Christmas? It does fill out the toe of the stocking quite nicely, so Santa clearly has a keen sense of esthetics. But has it always been done that way? And why an orange? Your Dave's Garden reporter-at-large looked into these questions.
The first thing I did was to ask my parents. There was an orange in my stocking on Christmas every year. I asked my mother, who was in charge of Christmas, at our house anyway. We used our own socks, not fluffy red stockings with frothy white fur around the top. It didn't matter how big of a sock you used—I learned this because as the oldest child I had the biggest feet—Santa brought us each the same amount of candy and little toys. But there was always that maddeningly healthy orange at the bottom! (My mother also introduced sandwiches that appeared like ordinary white bread sandwiches, until you bit into them and realized they had whole wheat bread on the bottom. And low-fat milk.)
But my mother told me that there was always an orange or a tangerine at the toe of her stocking, along with nuts in the shell, and during World War II, an orange could be a delicious and rare treat. An orange, in the middle of winter? How exotic!
I asked my step-father, too, who is a year or two older than my mother, and grew up in the south, nearer to orange-growing country. He repeated the same litany as my mother had—it had always been done that way, there was always an orange at the toe of your stocking (which was a sock). Sometimes, he added, you got two oranges, or three. Maybe even an apple! Then he referred me to the charming story by John Henry Faulk which you can listen to here, about Christmas, oranges, children and those days.
I talked to my own father, who reported finding an orange in his stocking each Christmas morning, but made of chocolate! I guess he missed out. Some poorer families didn't have stockings at all. Read this article by DG writer Jeremy Wayne Lucas to see that it's not all about stuff.
In Becky's Christmas by Tasha Tudor, published in 1961 and set in Tudor's childhood in between the World Wars, there is definitely an orange in the stockings on Christmas morning. And I remember reading in The Long Winter, how author Laura Ingalls Wilder had been surprised and delighted by oranges on Christmas.
So I went back further still, to an 1883 New York Times article begging Americans to give up these European and dangerous Christmas Trees and go back to the English custom of delivering Christmas gifts in stockings. (Imagine asking today's kids to choose, a Christmas tree or a stocking, one or the other, not both!) By 1883, oranges would have been widely available, but the article doesn't mention them.
Next I went to the Foods & Nutrition Encyclopedia, by Audrey Ensminger, et al., which indicated that by the 1880s, oranges were in plentiful enough supply in the United States, coming from the new states of Florida and California, that they could be shipped across the country via the new transcontinental railway system. So clearly, Santa Claus, working with the local seasonal availability of fresh oranges around winter time and the newly available transportation system, took advantage of those and tucked oranges into the socks and stockings of many American boys and girls on Christmas Eve around the country. With the exception of those too poor for any stocking, and those too rich for real fruit, most American children were lucky enough to get a fresh orange, tangerine or Clementine at the bottom of their stocking on Christmas by the twentieth century.
OK, so economically, we understand why oranges became available in the late 19th century in the United States. How did they get into these traditional stockings? Many different sources tell a very old story about Nicholas, who was born in a village on the shore of what is now part of Turkey. He inherited a fortune, but spent his life helping the poor and the persecuted, and eventually became a bishop in the new Christian church.
The most relevant story (for us) about Bishop Nicholas is that he learned of a poor man with three daughters who had no dowries and hence could not marry. The next night (here the stories diverge but I will convey the most entertaining) Nicholas returned and tossed three bags of gold for the daughters' dowries through the chimney which happened to land in the stockings of the three maidens which they had hung to dry in front of the fireplace. The bags of gold turned into balls of gold which are now symbolized by oranges. Bishop Nicholas is often portrayed in pictures wearing the red ceremonial robes and miter (or headdress) and holding the staff of a bishop as well as holding three gold balls, gold coins, or pieces of fruit.
Nicholas lived a long life, died of natural causes, was canonized and made a saint, so we know this same man, born in Turkey in the 4th century, as Saint Nicholas. Most of us know that St. Nicholas became, over time, our good friend Santa Claus. We know it's the same person because you still get those oranges in your stocking, don't you? What a delicious counterpoint to all the chocolate and candy!
Foods & Nutrition Encyclopedia
By Audrey Ensminger, et al, CRC Press, 1994
pictures: Stocking, courtesy of littleJack at Morguefiles; orange tree, Xenomorph, PlantFiles.