Sam Burnham, Curator
Christmas has so many traditions that they often get lost in the crowd. Some of the ones that survive have origins that are forgotten or lost. So I was excited to learn that the orange I often found in my Christmas stocking is an old tradition with a story. I really agree with this Smithsonian article that this tradition, which has fallen into obscurity, needs to make a comeback. I’ve found just the way to make it a Southern tradition.
Santa Claus is traced back to the 3rd Century Bishop of Myra, St. Nicholas. A story from church tradition relates that there were three woefully poor maidens and that St. Nicholas came one night and dropped three balls (or bags, or bars, or coins, depending on the storyteller) of gold through their window to serve as their dowries. Without this generosity these ladies would not find husbands as a dowry was a necessity in those days. That story is connected to the tradition of the Christmas orange that often appears in stockings on Christmas morning. The orange’s bright hue represents the glow of the gold. Hanging stockings for Santa became a tradition in the early 1800s and placing an orange in the stockings seems to have come into fashion about that same time.
I’ve only recently learned of the story and the tradition. I have a love of oranges and this connection is just one more reason to love them. The fruit is a reminder of my family roots in Florida and the sight of the expansive citrus groves that were much more common in my youth. Florida was much more rural then. Many of those acres that once produced citrus are covered in condominiums, shopping centers, or golf courses. I remember standing in a Walmart built on a former grove that had not once single piece of Florida fruit for sale. That was a huge shove towards Agrarianism for me.
This year the oranges are a little closer to home. Literally. The particular fruit I’m talking about are satsumas. My friend Brandon Chonko is raising them on his Southeast Georgia farm. The University of Georgia extension service recently recommended the cultivation of satsumas to Georgia farmers. The idea sounded just crazy enough to work so ol’ Birdmane put trees on the ground to see what would happen. After a couple years of attentive care and maintenance, he has harvested glorious Georgia citrus. Not just peaches or nectarines, we’re talking oranges. I never would have expected to have a serious orange raised north of about Howey-In-The-Hills or maybe Ocklawaha. But these oranges are from above that. North of Palatka, north of Green Cove Springs, north of Yulee, keep going, cross the St. Marys River and go out into the dirt roads of “Souega.” That’s where these are from.
So what’s the verdict? That’s the best part. I hate California citrus because it looks like the fruit in a dollar store still life or maybe some of the wax fruit in a bowl on your grandmother’s table. It’s perfect, bright colored, without a blemish. It tastes like candy, such a juicy sweetness but without that tart sassiness we love in our citrus. Florida citrus looks like it woke up on the wrong side of the bed. You don’t dare mention it’s appearance for fear of retribution. Oh it has a delicious sweetness but it also has that sting of the citric acid, that slap in the mouth that makes you feel alive.
These Georgia satsumas are like their Floridian cousins. They section like a clementine, meaning they peel easily and separate into individual sections. The beginning of each bite is that sweet juiciness that you expect but it has that same tart finish. It’s so odd to explain, that sweet and sour taste in the same fruit. But it’s so familiar, so beloved. It’s a piece of home.
This Christmas, if you’re down in the Souega - Southeast Georgia - area, look up Grassroots Farms and get you some of these delicious satsumas while they last. Drop them in your loved ones’ stockings, if you can resist eating them immediately.
Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire