Oranges and their association with Christmas are a vanishing, or rather vanished, tradition. Google it and you won’t get much but a cloying story about an orphan. Still, the image of stockings bursting with nuts and oranges hasn’t quite disappeared from our collective memory, so I thought I’d explain its curious origins.
On one level, it’s obvious enough. Until modern transportation, oranges were an exotic treat in temperate areas. They were also in season in the winter. Therefore, they made the perfect stocking-stuffing food.
However, there’s another side to the story, particularly why oranges were stuffed in stockings. You remember the story of Saint Nicholas, the thief who threw three bags of gold through the window of the three girls who were too poor to get a dowry. In some variants of the story, it’s three balls of gold. Metaphorically, the balls of gold were sometimes reinterpreted as oranges, no doubt in part because a ball of gold, colored with gold leaf, would look identical to an orange in Medieval iconography. Voila, Christmas oranges!