Every year from when I was little until this very moment, I’ve always gotten a stocking for Christmas from my parents. It had candy, of course, and some little toy or two (or usually a gift card now), and an orange. When I was younger the orange would always roll away (or be nudged with a petulant toe) only to be found under the couch or in a corner after all the wrapping paper was picked up. Now a days I look forward to the orange-in-the-toe treat. But how did this tradition come about?
In my family it was my mother’s side of the family that kept the tradition alive. Growing up her family didn’t have much money. Things like toys, candies, and especially fresh fruit were rare. Her parents were children of the great depression of the 1930s, money was tight, and many families simply didn’t have the means to buy gifts. Instead, it was such a treat, even a luxury, to find things like a sweet orange or some walnuts in your stocking on Christmas. So, receiving that orange in the stocking was actually an enormous gift. It was a way of making sure every child had at least one sweet present to open on Christmas morning, no matter what.
But there is more to the tradition. Some believe the practice dates back many centuries to the time of St. Nicholas. He was a man who lived in the fourth century in a place called Myra in Asia Minor (now called Turkey). He was very rich because his parents had died when he was young and left him loads of money, but he devoted his life to helping others, and eventually became a bishop.
According to the story, St. Nicholas learned of a poor man who wasn’t able to find suitors for his three daughters because he didn’t have money for the required dowry. This meant that the girls were destined to live miserable lives after their father died. St. Nicholas traveled to the house late one night and tossed three sacks of gold down the chimney (or into a window) for each of the dowries. The gold happened to land in each of the girls’ stockings which were hanging by the fire to dry. The oranges we receive today are a symbol of the gold that was left in the stockings.
Another thought is that since Oranges are native to Southeast Asia, and since many countries like China believe that oranges bring joy and luck to anyone who eats one, that the tradition is a way of wishing a loved one good luck in the new year. While there isn't a direct correlation to Asia, oranges and Christmas stockings, there is still a possibility that the oranges have some sort of connection.
Yet another theory behind the tradition is that December is the season of giving, and the orange segments represent the ability to share what you have with others. Or it could just be that most oranges are at their best during the fall and winter months.
Whatever the origin of the tradition, I love giving and getting a fresh orange on Christmas morning. Especially if it is taken right off my orange tree! Oranges are easy to pluck from the tree; the trick is to know when to harvest an orange. If you have ever purchased oranges from the local grocer, you may be well aware that uniform orange color is not necessarily an indicator of a delicious, juicy orange; the fruit is sometimes dyed, which makes things confusing. The same rule applies when harvesting oranges; color is not always a determining factor.
Times for harvesting oranges vary depending upon the variety. Picking oranges may occur any time from as early as March to as late as December or January. It’s helpful to know what variety of orange you have to determine the right time for picking oranges.
- Navel oranges are ready for harvest from November to June.
- Valencia oranges are ready in March into October.
- Cara Cara oranges ripen in December through May.
- Clementine and Satsuma oranges are ready as early as October but peak from December to January.
- Pineapple sweet oranges are ready for harvest from November to February.
As you can see, determining which type of orange you have gives you a hint as to when the fruit is ready. In general, most orange harvest takes place between late September and onward into early spring. But even knowing the variety of the fruit many folks still ask me how to know “for sure” if the oranges are ready for harvest and even then how best to harvest them.
Knowing how to pick an orange that is ripe can be tricky. As mentioned above, color is not always an indicator of an orange’s ripeness. That said, you don’t want to pick green fruit. In many cases, the ripe fruit will simply drop from the tree. Check the fruit for mold, fungus, or blemishes. Choose an orange to harvest that smells sweet, fresh and citrusy, not moldy. The surest way to check to see if an orange tree is ready to be picked is to taste one or two fruits before you harvest the entire tree.
Remember, citrus does not continue to ripen once removed from the tree. To harvest your oranges, simply grasp the ripe fruit in your hand and gently twist it until the stem detaches from the tree. If the fruit is too high, use a ladder to climb as far up as you can and shake the branches to loosen the fruit. Hopefully, the fruit will fall to the ground like citrus manna from heaven.
If the skins of your oranges tend to be very thin and, thus, easily torn, it is best to use clippers to cut the stems. Some varieties of oranges do well to just leave the ripe fruit on the tree for a few months longer instead of harvesting the entire tree at once. It’s a great storage method and often the fruit just gets sweeter. Go ahead and gather fruit that has dropped from the tree to the ground. Inspect it for broken skin. Discard any that have open wounds, but the rest of them should be just fine to eat.