What do oranges have to do with Christmas stockings?
Busy putting up the garland and setting out the candles, I rushed around the house. Everything needed to be ready for Santa’s visit. I doublechecked all the gifts for the stockings, yet to be hung by the chimney. Balancing tins of cookies in one hand and unopened greeting cards in the other, I walked into the kitchen. My hip bumped the counter’s edge, causing an orange to fall from the overflowing bowl sitting by the window. The ripe citrus smell permeated through the air, and suddenly I was back in my grandmother’s house on Christmas Day, looking for Grandma’s Christmas Orange.
Just a tradition “thing?”
Seated around the tree, my brothers and I waited to see what our overflowing stockings held for each of us. There were chocolate bars, trading cards, bubble gum— and always a bright fragrant orange waiting at the bottom. As kids, we never knew the reason for the orange. It seemed it was just a tradition “thing.” We were too busy opening Santa’s gifts to wonder why. Now I am an adult with grown children who always had their own “Grandma’s Christmas Oranges” every year. As that orange fell from the bowl and rolled along the countertop, I wondered where that tradition came from. And why did I feel the need to continue it?
Grandma was a Christmas baby, born on December 24th in a rural British farmhouse. Two years before the infamous Wall Street Crash brought along the global Great Depression. Twelve years before her country went to war with Germany. She grew up gathering apples and gooseberries from the local fields to make pies and jams. Pears adorned the kitchen during the holidays. But the biggest treats for her as a child were the tins of imported fruits. Pineapple, peaches, bananas, grapefruit, and oranges.
Sadly, during the start of World War II, the British Ministry of Food intercepted all imported fruits. Before they could be sent to markets, they were held back, strictly for distribution to the sick and weak children, and pregnant women. And the armed forces. The ships that once brought imported goods into dock were now used for war-related machinery and materials. This was the case for over six years!
During this time, country residents had the help of The Women’s Institute. This organization helped connect women living in the isolated areas of pastoral England. By 1939, over 5,500 rural villages had their own institutes. They helped over 1.5 million children and mothers, elderly, and disabled people escape major cities to the safer farming areas. They sold surplus produce that were at threat of rotting and were famous for their homemade jams made from that fruit. Overall, The Women’s Institute saved 450 TONS of fruit from rotting during that time period!
But even with all of their help, oranges continued to be a scarce commodity. And it was a vital source of Vitamin C. In fact, the entire national diet of the United Kingdom was at risk of a Vitamin C deficiency without their regular shipments of oranges. So, the British Welfare Centers worked to distribute three items to their citizens.
- Cod Liver Oil
- Dried Milk
- Concentrated Orange Juice, supplied by the United States
They deemed these three things necessary to stave off the onset of scurvy and rickets. Fresh oranges were seldom available, however, as they rarely arrived safely by American ships. But when the fruit eventually did reach the markets, they went to children only. There are stories that, on Thursdays, oranges went on sale, causing mothers to stand in line for hours at a time to buy just one.
What a treat it would be to find a fresh foreign fruit on the kitchen table that day!
As my grandmother turned 13, the most popular Christmas gift in the UK was a hard-to-find bar of soap. Decorations were made from scraps of old newspapers because nothing was ever wasted. Then in 1941, the Ministry of Supply announced that “a retailer shall not provide any paper for the packing or wrapping of goods excepting food stuffs or articles which the shopkeeper has agreed to deliver,” in support of providing materials to the growing war effort. Therefore, it became somewhat difficult to keep children’s’ gifts “under wraps,” so to speak. So, while it was a time for presents to be as practical as possible, parents became resourceful in hiding little treats and goodies in their kids’ stockings.
In the later war years, the Ministry of Food gave its citizens a rare treat at Christmas time—extra ration points for half a pound of sweets—because yes, even the candy and chocolate were rationed and hard to find during that time. So, the stocking hung near the fireplace became the space to hide a few luxuries, like a rare orange jewel that Mother had waited for hours to bring home.
Grandma left this earth only three Christmases ago, only five days before her 92nd birthday. I remember the sparkle in her eye when she talked of Christmases past. She spoke of those days– going without, rationing, and sharing– with the practical tone she would use for any other day. “It was just what we did,” she would say. There was no bitterness, anger, or even sadness. She was thankful for what she had, in the moment and even later looking back at her life’s journey. But she also would often add,
“But boy, those oranges. What a true treat they were!”
For more information on the British Women’s Institute and how they helped during WWII, visit https://www.iwm.org.uk/history/what-did-the-womens-institute-do-during-the-second-world-war
Check out my Resident Witch trilogy, a light-hearted tale of mischievous little ladies who turn towns on their sides! Inspired by my own grandmother, follow Miss Reveena on her journey through Castor County! Click here for more info: https://annemarieluccistahl.com/