As a young scholar, who probably should have been listening more rather than doodling cartoons across every available space in my exercise book, I happened to learn a lot about oranges!
One festive Friday during those halcyon school days, we were given an essay to write over the weekend, titled ‘The Oranges of Christmas’. What a strange subject I thought, yet threw myself into the diversity of such an abstract yet seasonal challenge. Everyone else wrote about ‘The Origins of Christmas’, which was of course the correct assignment! And although I became the laughing stock of the classroom, my essay on ‘oranges’ became a great talking point for years to come, opening up a whole new debate for discerning discussion.
The main focus of my seasonal topic being, why do people put oranges in their stockings! And I don’t mean those stockings women walk about wearing. That would be silly, wouldn’t it? Although very handy if there was a sudden emergency requiring a citrus hit!
No, I’m talking about traditional Christmas stockings, hung at the merry mantelpiece but more commonly these days in the absence of open fires, swung from doorknobs, bedposts and staircases. You have to be careful over the festive season when flinging socks over a radiator to merely dry, for there is nothing more startling than the surprise of a tangerine in the toe that stops you getting your trainers on! So where did these Christmas stockings and their filling of juicy oranges come from, you might ask?
As with all legends (or leg ends as we are talking about stockings), you have to embrace the creativity of their ‘oranges’, sorry origins! - and go with the festive flow. St Nicholas of Myra who was just plain Bishop Nick at the time, is believed to be the inspiration for Santa Claus, and was on his travels, passing through a plethora of small towns and villages when he heard of the misfortunate plight which had befallen a local merchant.
The once wealthy merchant had fallen upon very difficult and trying times, worrying himself into an early grave over the future of his three beautiful daughters. No longer able to provide dowries for his three girls, the young daughters faced the possibility of having no prospects whatsoever in the marriage stakes. Without any proposals for wedlock, the merchant and his girls were subject to endure lives of shame and mockery.
When Bishop Nicholas heard of the proud merchant’s predicament he decided to help. Under cover of darkness, the kind Bishop climbed up onto the merchant’s rooftop and emptied three canvas bags filled with glittering gold coins down the chimney.
Now, as luck would have it, the three unmarried daughters had strung their stockings (which in those days were really thick socks) up at the mantelpiece to dry overnight in front of the open fire. The following morning, when the girls took their woollen stockings down, they were astonished to find they were filled with golden coins. The merchant rejoiced and immediately proposed the dowries to any desirable suitors who could confirm a loving and advantageous marriage to each of his three daughters.
After the account of such mysterious and generous gifting, children began hanging up their own stockings at the fireplace in the hope that they might also receive a gift from the sainted Nicholas.
Over the years, the gold coin idea was replaced by the symbol of an orange, also round and golden, which was also a much healthier approach, and a boost of vitamin C especially useful during wartime rationing and times of hardship. Besides, not many parents have sacks full of gold hanging around, unless of course you happen to be the Kardashians!
Another traditional tale is the charming story of ‘The Christmas Orange’. Once upon a tinsel time when people’s teeth weren’t quite so white and more things were made of wood, there was a young boy called Oscar who had lived all his life with nine other boys in a poor orphanage.
Times were tough, with never enough money in the orphanage coffers to be spent on luxuries like x-boxes and designer trainers which hadn’t even been invented yet. There was just enough money to heat the draughty rooms and put a morsel of food in the poor orphans’ mouths. Yet on Christmas morning each child was given a very special treat - a juicy Christmas orange. It was the only time of the year when the orphans were lucky enough to receive such a deliciously rare treat.
Each boy would try and save his orange for as long as possible, carrying and cradling it like a precious puppy. Cherishing the simple gift. The orphans admired and coveted this exotic fruit as if their fresh oranges were precious jewels, savouring the moment until the fruit was peeled and eaten, with a sweet and memorable burst of succulent, seasonal juice. Something we can do any time we want in 2019, but for an impoverished Victorian orphan, a huge treat!
On the Christmas Day of this particular story, Oscar broke a very strict orphanage rule by excitedly pushing another boy while they were queuing for their festive oranges. As a punishment, the orphanage mother immediately sent Oscar to his room, empty handed. This year, there would be no Christmas orange for little Oscar.
Poor Oscar spent Christmas Day all alone, filled with loneliness and absolute regret. When evening came he cried himself to sleep, knowing that the consequence of his behaviour meant he would not have his Christmas orange this year, an experience he would have shared and cherished with all the other boys in the orphanage.
In the absolute stillness of the night, Oscar woke as something was gently pressed into his empty hand. His eyes snapped open in time to witness a shadow creeping silently out of the room. Oscar sat up in his bed, looking down at the strange object resting on his palm.
It was the sweet smelling fruit of an entire orange, completely peeled and constructed from the individual segments of nine other oranges, The orange was formed as one, and held together by a shiny red ribbon. Nine precious oranges had been peeled and eaten that night by the other boys in the orphanage. Each boy had donated a segment. Oscar wept as he held in his little hands the true meaning of Christmas. The ultimate gift - the touch of human kindness, which came in the quiet hours, expecting nothing in return but a happy heart.
This simple gift was priceless, and given to Oscar with love. A gift that mended the heart of a wounded child, whispering the silent message to others in a world of despair that people really ‘do’ care. Even when you think they don’t.
So next time you pluck a simple orange from your Christmas stocking, take a moment to reflect on the world, and remember why that orange was there in the first place! Think of Oscar, and have a Happy Christmas.