“The stockings were hung by the chimney with care, in hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there.” So wrote Clement Clarke Moore nearly two centuries ago, but the question remains of what, exactly, Mr. Moore envisioned filling up those fluffy crimson socks. As a New Yorker, Moore probably filled his eager children’s stockings with peppermint sticks and tiny toys, but if the writer had hailed from a more Southerly state, perhaps it would have been citrus, not trinkets, that filled the toes of those socks.
For generations, stretching back further than our history books, we Southerners have filled our Christmas stockings with sweet, seasonal citrus. But why? Did our ancestors have a penchant for health foods? Did they understand the value of Vitamin C at the outset of winter? Or did they simply have a cruel sense of humor by which they denied their children the chocolatey joys of Christmas?
One need only look a little deeper into history to discover the true answer. Though today we are all accustomed to an abundance of produce, with most products available year-round, not too long ago consumers actually had to wait for their favorite fruits to come into season before they could sink their teeth into those soft skins. Not only that, but since fruits are highly perishable, without modern transportation their radius of distribution was limited.
For generations, Southerners would hail the arrival of citrus season. Ships carrying great loads of Florida oranges would pull into our Southern ports in early winter, where they were quickly carted to surrounding cities. The sweet globes were such special, seasonal treats that they were hoarded away for special occasions—such as Christmas. Those Southerners unlucky enough to live deep in the heart of the country, away from ports, couldn’t even enjoy the fruit until the advent of the railroad, when quick transportation could finally carry the perishables to their doorsteps.
Lucky Southern children would awake to stockings full or vibrant citrus, usually our favorite Satsumas, and spend the day peeling the bitter rinds, wrists dripping with the syrupy nectar. But the tradition of finding an orange tucked into a stocking on Christmas morn stretches even beyond the South. Truman Capote writes of his jealousy when his friend receives “a sack of satsumas” on Christmas during his Southern childhood, but even Laura Ingalls Wilder in the Midwest and Tasha Tudor in the North fondly recall receiving a single piece of citrus in their childhood stockings.
Although our Southern penchant for sweet citrus is behind the continuity of the tradition, the truth is that the custom of receiving oranges on Christmas is older than our very country. According to popular tales, Bishop Nicholas (who became Saint Nicholas, our Santa Claus) inherited a great fortune early in life but spent his days giving back to the community and local families. One such family consisted of a father and his three daughters. The family was so poor that none of the daughters had dowries, restricting them from marriage.
Hearing of their plight, jolly old Bishop Nick tied together three sacks of gold and tossed them into the family’s chimney late one evening and each fell into the daughters’ stockings, which were hanging by the fire to dry. When they awoke the next morning the three bags had melted into three balls of gold—perfectly round, orange orbs of delight, much like an orange. Traditional depictions of Bishop Nicholas portray the man in the red ceremonial robes of his profession with three golden balls or pieces of fruit in his hand. And from this tale was born the association of citrus with Christmas.
The tradition of receiving citrus on Christmas may not be unique to the South, but we’ve certainly taken the lore and made it our own. From the golden gifts of a saint to barges full of the Floridian fruit, the story of Christmas citrus in the South is long—and delicious.
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