Harley Hay

Hay’s Daze: The origin of the Christmas orange

You may have heard that “orange is the new black” but when it comes to oranges at Christmas, it seems to me that Chinese is the new Japanese. And, as you know, these particular Japanese oranges (the kind we had when I was a kid) and Chinese oranges (the kind we mostly have now) are both mandarins, which apparently is just one of many many types of oranges. All this time, I’ve just called them “Christmas oranges”.

In fact, I picked up a box of Chinese mandarin Christmas oranges the other day (then carried them to the till, paid for them, took them home and ate quite a few) and they were quite tasty. But, thing is, they just didn’t seem like the Japanese oranges of my distant youth, which always, most definitely had the rare, specific, magical taste of Christmas.

Or is that just one of those “things were better and the world was shiny and fairy dust was in the air at Christmas when I was a young rapscallion”? (Also, isn’t “rapscallion” a delicious word?!)

As is often a misguided solution when I have unanswered questions of epic significance, I’ve decided to get the lowdown as well as the down-low on Christmas oranges from the only self-proclaimed “expert” who is available and unpaid enough to return my calls.

Hay’s Daze: “Dr. Reginald Smoot, I know you’re the professor of sociology at the Carrot River Correspondence University of Saskatchewan, and it’s been a while since we chatted, but I was wondering about Christmas oranges.”

Dr. Reginald Smoot: “You mean why we used to call them and Brazil nuts extremely politically incorrect names?”

H.D.: “Um, no, I was wondering why…”

Dr. Smoot: “Japan has been experiencing problems growing and shipping their mandarins, due to tsunamis and other difficulties.”

H.D.: “I’m impressed – I didn’t think you’d know anything about oranges.”

Smoot: “Well, orange is the only color you can eat.”

H.D.: “Pardon?”

Smoot: “You can’t say, ‘I’m going to eat a blue,’ now can you?”

H.D.: “Aw, welcome back, Smoot!”

Smoot: “Thank you, and it’s Dr. Smoot. And did you know that in November that a box of 100 specially bred Japanese mandarins sold for $9,600?”

H.D.: “Wow, I like Christmas oranges and everything, but I don’t think I would have gone past $9,000.”

Smoot: “Is that some sort of attempt at humor? One should never joke about oranges, especially Christmas ones.”

H.D.: “Boy, you really like oranges, don’t you?”

Smoot: “Not really. I just don’t like humor.”

H.D.: “OK, let me try this: I always wondered why Santa puts a mandarin orange in the toe of my stocking every Christmas. I really like that.”

Smoot: “You get an orange? I used to get a lump of black.”

H.D.: “That would be coal, and I’m not surprised. On the other hand, maybe it was just a very old orange.”

Smoot: “I never thought of that. I feel a little better now. And I feel even better now that there is actually a word that rhymes with “orange”.

H.D.: “Really? I thought…”

Smoot: The word is “sporange” which is a botanical term for part of a fern. Oh, and to answer your rather obvious question, oranges are traditionally found in Christmas stockings because historically, foodstuffs like candies, oranges (and Brazil nuts) were rare, expensive, and considered extremely special treats.”

H.D.: “Well, it really does feel like Christmas when…”

Smoot: “My theory, of course, is that Santa would stuff mandarins in his big white socks for readily available snacks during his long and tiring Christmas Eve journey, and decided everyone should have a special Christmas orange.”

H.D.: “Yeah. Let’s go with that one.”

Harley Hay is a Red Deer author and filmmaker.