An orange in your Christmas stocking?

Published 12:18 am Friday, December 21, 2018

There are so many Christmas stories, customs, and legends that have survived generations. And, it’s not easy to single out one of them that might be a part of your family traditions or that of your neighbors and friends.

One tradition that is carried on today in our extended family is that of an orange or two in the Christmas stocking to be discovered with other gifts on Christmas morning.

As a child growing up in rural Claiborne County, I can remember that both the family and our school would provide an orange and other fruit as part of the gift-giving at this special season.

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Those were the years of the Great Depression (1930s), money was scarce, and many families simply didn’t have the means to buy gifts.

Living on a farm, our family had lots of fresh fruits in the summertime. Apples, cherries, strawberries, and blackberries were plentiful. But the luxury of a sweet orange was a real treat, making the stocking a very important part of the holiday celebration.

The tradition supposedly started hundreds of years ago by the man who would become Saint Nicholas. He inherited a large sum of money, devoted his life to helping others, and became a bishop before sainthood.

Some versions of the legend note that Nicholas heard of a poor farmer who had three daughters, and the father didn’t have money for a dowry. He feared that he would have to sell one of the daughters into slavery. Unknown to the family, Saint Nicholas traveled to the house and tossed three bags of gold down the chimney, one for each of the three daughters.

The oranges we receive today are a symbol of the gold that was left. There are more details to the legend, and variations of it, that have been preserved and passed along to each new generation. One good summary can be found on the Internet at My Merry of the Christmas Orange.

Our daughter continued a family tradition with her children. In fact, she remembers the orange, other fruits, nuts, candies, and small gifts from her childhood, and says “Sometimes the stocking was the best part!”

So, how will it be this year for you, your children, and your grandchildren? Will the stockings be “…hung by the chimney with care, in hopes that Saint Nicholas soon will be there?” And, on Christmas morning, will there be an orange or oranges in each stocking?

William H. Baker is a native of Claiborne County and a former resident of Middlesboro. Contact him at