Once in the history sugar was not such an everyday item it is today. It was the Arabs who brought in sugar from India to Europe in the 8th century current reckoning. It was still for only the very rich people for over 1000 years. It wasn’t before the Victorian times sugar become a common household item. Before that, people used honey and fruits to add sweetness to their lives. Most fruits were dried to survive over winter, and together with honey they were baked into sweets. Apples picked just before the first frost could manage over winter. It was a luxury to enjoy an apple in the middle of the winter, even though it might have been a bit wrinkled. It was still better than the leathery dried fruits, or the brown pieces cooked in water and honey to return some of the moisture to them.
Can you imagine, what a miracle an orange was, when it was imported to Europe in the 11th century from Iran. That variant, the Persian orange, was beautiful, moist and golden, but oh so bitter. Then in the 15th century they imported the Indian oranges, that were sweet. Also, these miraculous trees produced fruit in the middle of the winter. Of course it was God’s gift to the people, to celebrate the birth of His Son, and naturally made a Christmas treat. It doesn’t harm that the orange is such a beautiful, fire colored sphere, reminding of sun which in Europe is so very tired at Yuletide.
The Persian oranges might have been bitter, but they still have the lovely, fresh citrus scent. Back at 13th century, the people used to stuck cloves into oranges, roll them in cinnamon and other spices, and make pomanders – or “amber apples”, Pommes d’ambre, as they were originally called in French. Later they boiled a dough of lovely smelling things and rolled this into an “apple”, or a ball, and covered it with spices. Ladies used to carry these in the 16th and 17th century when the hygiene wasn’t too good, and smell at the lovely spice oranges when the smells of life surrounding them got too thick.
Later the Europe got to enjoy mandarin oranges, that are even sweeter, and that ripen in December. They are easily peeled and fit nicely in a child’s hand, and in the early 20th century, when the variant Clementines was introduced to the world, these were most often put into Christmas stockings. It is probably because of all these reasons, clementines are also called “Christmas Oranges”.
The Christian symbolism of oranges are purity, chastity and generosity. This is why brides are to carry orange flowers. Orange tree blossoms and bears fruit all year long, and so was given the virtue of generosity – and therefore also associated with the greatest feast of generosity, Christmas. Or was it perhaps the other way around? As orange bears fruit at Christmas time, it was given the Christmas symbolism as well?
In the late 19th century the railroads could transport oranges from California to all over United States, and at that time an orange in Christmas stocking was indeed a treat. Just remember how Laura Ingalls Wilder described her joy over Christmas Oranges in her book The Long Winter.
There are several stories about Christmas oranges. I like the one about St.Nicholas best. St.Nicholas was born in the Greek village Patara, in modern Turkey. He used to be a rich man, but after his parents died, he gave away everything, to the needy, the sick and the suffering. One of the most wellknown stories is about how he rescued a man’s three daughters from being sold into slavery. He left the house a bag of gold for each daughter, and the legend says that as he tossed the bag through a window or fireplace, they landed into the girls’ stockings that they had hanged to dry. In some versions the bag of gold is a golden ball, like the one the princess who kissed a frog was playing with. Some say these golden balls are symbolized by oranges, and this is the reason to why there is always an orange in the Christmas stocking.
Another explanation, not as romantic, is that oranges are healthy sweets and fill the stocking toe so well, that the stocking looks plump and nice even if one doesn’t have that much to fill it with.