After eagerly dumping out the contents, I must admit it wasn't the stocking stuffer I liked best. Those were the chocolate coins, Life Savers Storybook, Sugar Daddy lolliops, Bazooka bubble gum, candy lips, and Tootsie Rolls. But as I look back now, those oranges have become a treasured memory of Christmases past.

stocking on mantle with orange

The tradition of Christmas stockings has its origins in the story of Saint Nicholas, as does the tradition of placing an orange in the toe. Nicholas, Bishop of Myra (now Demre) Turkey, was known for his benevolence. Following his death, the legend of his generous gift-giving grew and spread abroad. Eventually, Saint Nicholas morphed into Santa Claus, a benevolent character who delivers Christmas presents to good children around the world.

The tradition grows

The custom of giving an orange at Christmas became popular in many parts of the world and quickly spread across North America. The fruit was usually delivered by railway and many people didn’t receive delivery until Christmas Eve. Having colorful, fresh fruit in the dead of winter was a wondrous thing. When a child found an orange in a stocking, it was almost magical, perhaps evoking the recollection of past holiday gatherings with family and friends and memories of those no longer present.

christmas stockings on a fireplace mantle

Origins of the Christmas stocking

Christmas stockings have been around since the Fourth Century A.D. Though there is no definitive explanation of exactly how Christmas stockings originated, several variations of the folktale have been circulated throughout history.

The most popular story is that of a poor English widower and his three daughters. The story says that Saint Nicholas, known for his kindness and generosity, had discovered the family’s misfortune and set out to deliver an extravagant gift to help them. On Christmas eve, he tossed three bags of gold coins down the family’s chimney where they landed in the socks that were hung above the fireplace to dry.

The story of the Christmas stockings diverged into several unique traditions. Some would hang their father’s big wool socks while others would hang uniquely decorated sock-shaped bags. On Christmas Day, children around the world would awaken to find their stockings stuffed with small gifts and sweets.

What could be better than chocolate and oranges. This sweet treat is made in the USA and is a delight at any time of year.

old painting showing Nicholas gifting the daughters

Saint Nicholas

There’s a more modern religious connection to the story. St. Nicholas, a wealthy and generous bishop, heard of a poor, widowed father of three girls who was worried his daughters would never find husbands. Saddened to hear this, Nicholas snuck into the widower’s house and put bags of gold in each of the girls' stockings drying by the fire. The next morning, the girls discovered the gold and knew they could now afford to pay dowries and marry. Today, an orange in a stocking is said to represent the gold given by St. Nick.

Also known as Nicholas of Myra, St Nicholas was an early Christian bishop living in the ancient Greek maritime city of Myra in Asia Minor (modern-day Demre, Turkey) during the time of the Roman Empire. Because of the many miracles attributed to his intercession, he is also known as Nicholas the Wonder Worker.

In numerous European cities and countries, Saint Nicholas is known as the patron saint of sailors, archers, merchants, children, repentant thieves, prostitutes, brewers, pawnbrokers and students. As was common for early Christian saints, his reputation evolved among the faithful, and his legendary habit of secret gift-giving gave rise to the traditional persona of Santa Claus.

A scarcity of oranges and the creation of Sunkist

Today, we can usually buy oranges whenever we want, but fresh oranges were once considered a luxury. Before fast transit and refrigeration, the fruit was scarce, expensive, and only available in larger cities along railroad routes. Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote about her delight receiving an orange several times in her autobiographies of pioneer life.

In 1908, the Sunkist brand was created, making oranges the first produce to have its own advertising campaign. The demand for oranges exploded across the country, and they became a symbol of sunny California prosperity.

Christmas stocking with gifts oranges and cookies

Making pomanders from oranges and cloves is a tradition I've continued into adulthood. Children enjoy this easy holiday craft, and they smell wonderful!

Orange and clove pomander balls

pomander oranges with cloves

New traditions

In the last century, the tradition of Christmas stockings has become less traditional. People experiment with how to hang them, kinds of stocking stuffers, designs and fabrics. For those who want something other than the traditional placement above the fireplace, or for those who don’t have a fireplace, popular alternatives are cascading down a staircase, on a bedpost, in a window, on a bookcase, a ladder, or simply strung across an open wall.

Alternative stocking hanging ideas

Oranges are easy to give as well as an excellent source of potassium and vitamins A and C to nourish skin and hair. No matter what tradition you prefer, or none at all, finding an orange in your Christmas stocking is finding a gift of health.

Check out these mouth-watering citrus recipes.

Books and movies about the Christmas orange

Christmas Oranges movie poster

Christmas Oranges (movie) based on the book by Linda Bethers,

An Orange for Frankie by Patricia Polacco,

The Christmas Orange by Don Gillmor and the cartoon movie version, The Christmas Orange.

Oranges for Christmas stockings

In the Netherlands, instead of putting out cookies and milk for Santa on Christmas Eve, children fill their wooden shoes with hay and carrots for St. Nicholas' horses.

Dutch wooden shoes filled with gifts

A small tart cup in the toe of these vintage pre-filled mesh stockings substituted for the orange.

Victorian ad for Christmas stoking

Merry Christmas and many happy holiday memories!

Black and white photo of girls on Christmas

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