Western culture associates oranges with Christmas. I certainly grew up with an orange, in later years a tangerine, mandarin or satsuma, in the toe of my stocking. (Not to mention an assortment of shelled nuts.) But why this practice?
Tradition in parts of Europe has it that Saint (Bishop) Nicholas rescued poor maidens from being sold by their families into slavery by supplying their dowry gold. Stealthily doing good in his neighbourhood at night, he throws bags of gold in through the window. It landed in stockings left to dry before the fire. The money is often shown as gold balls and these are later came to be symbolized by oranges, or even apples. So the orange in the toe of the stocking is a reminder of Nicholas' gift. Of course today gold foil covered chocolate coins can also fit the bill nicely!
St Nicholas' Day is celebrated on 6 December across the world in honour of this benign bringer of gifts. In Europe, especially in Germany and Poland, boys dress up as bishops to beg alms for the poor, while in Ukraine, children expect St Nicholas to place a present under their pillows if they have been good throughout the year. The tradition differs across countries, so in the Netherlands, Dutch children put out a clog filled with hay and a carrot for St Nicholas' horse. (Did anyone in America see a gap in the market for other carrot eating quadrupeds being deployed as part of this tradition, removed to Christmastide later the same month?)
Saint Nicholas later came to be identified as "Father Christmas". In America Sankt Niklaus became "Santa Claus" a natural phonetic alteration from the German.
But who was the original Saint Nicholas? Nikolaos of Myra (270 – 343 AD) was a historic Christian saint and Greek Bishop of Myra, in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). Fabled in local cultural practice as the patron saint of marriageable maidens, children and many others besides, Nicholas was widely revered as the friend and protector of all in trouble or need. His popularity spread during the Middle Ages. Sailors, claiming him as their patron, carried stories of his favour and protection far and wide. St. Nicholas chapels were built in many seaports, including my home town of King’s Lynn. Now thousands of churches are named for him: three hundred in Belgium, thirty-four in Rome, twenty-three in the Netherlands and more than four hundred in England.
Now on to the oranges…a rare treat in a Christmas stocking even as late as Victorian times in England. Until relatively recently a few oranges would have made a “statement” on any dining table. So imagine the wonder in Medieval times! Oranges arriving on British shores would most likely have come from a grove in Spain, Italy or Sicily. Oranges were traded in larger quantities in Tudor (Renaissance) times, from much of southern Europe to central and northern Europe, including England. But still they would have been an unimaginable luxury, despite the fact that they tasted very bitter indeed! I can imagine a crate or sack of oranges being sent as a gift for royalty by England’s ambassadors in those far away, sun-kissed places, or transported by enterprising merchants for wealthy clients in England.