My father finally explained it to me when I was in high school. He grew up in a farming family and there wasn’t a lot of money. Oranges were a rather expensive gift, especially being out of season elsewhere in the country. Of course, in Texas, we have The Valley down around the Texas-Mexico border and the growing season lasts a long time. But in the days of World War II when my father was a child, it was still tough to come by. Getting an orange in your stocking at Christmas was a pretty big deal.
Often, high school agricultural clubs sell citrus fruit as fund raisers. I remember my mother buying lots of fruit from my high school’s Future Farmers of America chapter. She’d give it to relatives at Christmas and it was always appreciated.
Fruit has been a luxury for a long time. It was in a European renaissance history class at Austin College that I learned about “cloved” fruit. It was traditional for a man from a wealthy or noble family to send a lemon or an orange with cloves stuck in it to a woman whom he wanted to marry. Citrus fruit was exorbitantly expensive then, as were cloves, which were not native to Europe, but to Indonesia. The gift was considered terribly decadent. It showed that the man had the money to support a wife in any style she pleased.
It was at a European renaissance-themed dinner party years later that I saw a man propose to his fiancé with a cloved orange. The ring was tied to a ribbon wrapped around the fruit. It was one of the most creative and romantic wedding proposals I had witnessed. And it made me think of Christmas, home and family.
Oranges have always reminded me of my father. I can remember him coming in from mowing the lawn and peeling an orange to eat. He liked to pass on bits of trivia to me, too; especially, the weird stuff.
“You have all your teeth because of oranges,” Daddy told me. “Pirates figured out a long time ago that if they went without citrus fruit on a long voyage, they’d get scurvy and all their teeth would fall out. So eat an orange.”
I was so grossed out by the mental picture of a toothless, nasty pirate and the thought of losing my teeth that I ate oranges until I was nearly sick.
My father had read that vitamin C prevented cancer as well as colds. When my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, my father peeled oranges until his fingers were raw.
“I’m hoping it’ll keep the cancer from coming back,” he reasoned.
The year before my father died, I had traveled to Florida and brought back a bunch of oranges for him just after New Year’s Day. He had just been diagnosed with cancer. By that time, my mother had been cancer-free for fourteen years. I figured Daddy had been on to something with oranges as a cancer treatment.
It didn’t work, but it was worth a try.
The oranges became a symbol of my parents’ love. While my mother was, as she still is, effusive in her verbalization of love, my father was not. His way of showing his love was by doing things. Peeling an orange and handing it to me or my mother was his way of saying, “I don’t want to lose you.” It was as close as he ever came to saying, “I love you.”
So are oranges in a Christmas stocking a Texas tradition? Well, I don’t know. It’s my family’s tradition, and we’re from Texas, so the math works.
In this particularly difficult year, financially, I’ve thought about giving oranges as gifts. My daughters seem to like them rather well and I have yet to introduce them to the tradition, so I think this is the year to do it. I reckon that when they get around to asking me why they have oranges in their stockings, I can tell them about some of the greatest gifts I’ve ever gotten at Christmas…or any other time of year.