Culture // 5 min Read

A Very Citrus Christmas

Written by Anna Jones

Dec 16, 2020

Photography by Photography by Anne, Inc. Florals by Lizzy Lancaster, The Woodsman’s Wife and Co.

The Christmas season is filled with special traditions, each tied to a poignant memory or prick of nostalgia from festive seasons of old. Getting into the Christmas spirit is often best achieved through practicing these traditions in the hopes of sparking a little joy. Picking out the perfect Christmas tree with family and then bringing the prized possession to position just so in your home. Trimming said tree with lights and ornaments and crowning the top with a star or an angel (or a big bow if you’re my mother). Baking a whole host of sweets, from coffee cakes and spiced muffins to pecan pies and red velvet cakes, to simple Christmas sugar cookies dusted in red and green sprinkles (if you’re my mother-in-law). Everyone has their own special traditions, giving us each a sense of comfort and sentimentality for the perfect dose of Christmas cheer. Just a spoonful of Christmas cheer drowns out the family fighting.… Isn’t that how the rhyme goes?

But have you ever considered some of the stranger, less obvious traditions that we practice at Christmas? Let’s say, hanging a bit of mistletoe in a doorway to sneak a Christmas kiss beneath. Mistletoe actually grows in large round bunches high in the treetops of the Lowcountry, which, if you’re my uncle, is a great sport to shoot down with a shotgun; however, it’s not necessarily the most tranquil activity to celebrate a holiday synonymous with peace. Or putting cookies and milk out for Santa next to the fireplace. Doesn’t this seem like the ideal spot from which Fido can get his midnight snack? And aren’t dogs not supposed to eat the chocolate in those chocolate chip cookies? Also, I’m not sure if you’ve seen a photo of Santa lately, but I’d say he could swap the cookies for veggies or perhaps practice some intermittent fasting.
And now that we’re on the topic, Christmas trees used to be adorned with actual candles, lit on Christmas Eve, making a bucket of water nearby an absolute must for those clumsy guests who, after a few too many eggnogs, might stumble into your picture-perfect Christmas tree tableau. And eggnog. Do not even get me started on this noxious drink.

Among the most perplexing, however, is the tradition of putting an orange in a Christmas stocking. Why, of all the mouthwatering treats associated with Christmas, do we put a ball of orange citrus in the toe of a loved one’s stocking? Certainly, a black box with a diamond ring as Eartha Kitt sings in “Santa Baby” would be more fitting?

So, why is this? The lore of putting oranges in Christmas stockings has ties to a few different origins, each with its own unique narrative. According to Smithsonian magazine, oranges in stockings came about in the 19th century, around the same time that the tradition of hanging stockings on the mantel came to pass, as documented in the famous “Twas the Night Before Christmas” poem.1

“The stockings were hung by the chimney with care, in hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there.”

This tricky St. Nicholas, with his ability to squeeze down any size chimney with the flick of the wrist, was once an actual saint in the 3rd century—he looks great for his age, doesn’t he?—and the story goes that he helped a poor man by giving him gold to use as dowries for his three daughters. Because women could not marry without a sizable dowry, dear St. Nicholas apparently tossed a bag of gold through the poor fellow’s window to help marry off his daughters. The oranges placed in stockings were symbolic of this giving gesture.

Even though oranges are certainly more budget-friendly than a sack of gold, they were still a rare and treasured item in the 19th century, and those on the receiving end were more than delighted to accept this nearly forbidden fruit as a Christmas gift, which may also explain their odd appearances in Christmas stockings.1 Fast-forward to the early 20th century as the toll of the Great Depression reverberated throughout the world, and oranges took on a new yet ironically familiar role: that of the more affordable gift.* Oranges were still undoubtedly valuable luxuries saved for special occasions, but many families could still manage to afford to toss an orange or two in their stockings as gifts for Christmas morning.

Looking at today’s Christmas traditions, oranges have transitioned again. Once a treasured treat hidden inside a stocking, they are now in plain sight, used in Christmas décor throughout the home: simple wreaths encircling a hurricane lantern, floral centerpieces used in elegant tablescapes, rustic displays with cloves for a hint of spice, dried orange slices woven into a delicate garland that will keep all December long. Yes, oranges have made quite the holiday comeback. (I’m personally partial to the addition of oranges in a spirited Christmas cocktail, adding not only a bit of color but also bright flavors that pack a holiday punch.)

Still a bit of a mystery, I like to think that oranges present at Christmastime today symbolize simpler times, happy moments of Christmas past, and those gone-by good ol’ days. Long before kids asked for every Apple product available on their Christmas list or collected expensive treasures like we used to do with baseball cards, we were all just happy with a beautiful orange—a sweet-smelling surprise at the end of our stocking and a token of the holiday spirit. Maybe I’m getting old, or maybe I’m just getting nostalgic, but either way, I think this tradition sounds like a nice way to celebrate Christmas. And with that, my Christmas shopping is done.