“The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,” reads Clement Clarke Moore’s well-loved Christmas poem.
Written in 1822, Moore introduced Santa’s sleigh and reindeer to a world familiar with St. Nicholas, the patron saint of children.
The tradition of hanging stockings, however, began long before.
St. Nicholas was the bishop of Myra in Asia Minor (Turkey),” says Les Ellenor, retired Okanagan College English professor. “He was a very generous man and he heard about three girls who could not marry because they didn’t have dowries. So he climbed up on the roof of their house and dropped three bags of gold down the chimney.”
The year was 230 AD and the bags landed in the girls’ stockings, which were drying by the fire, says Ellenor.
Before science proved the Earth orbits around the sun on an annual basis, by December, people in the Northern Hemisphere were worried the short, dark days of winter would never give way to the warmth of spring.
“Everybody worships the sun and has done for millions of years; the sun is life-giving,” Ellenor says, noting the sun remains static for about four or five days at the solstices, with winter officially beginning Dec. 21 or 22.
If the sun didn’t come back, crops failed and people starved, as happened more than once when winter held its grip.
“They had to do magic in order to bring back the sun, and one of the ways they did it was with pudding; they would make a bowl and set fire to the pudding.”
In Scotland, people rolled flaming barrels of oil down the hill in order to encourage the sun.
People would light bonfires to show the sun how to be warm and hot.
In Roman times, Saturnalia was held at the end of the year, a pagan festival designed to encourage Saturnas, the vegetation god, to bring good crops, health and prosperity.
“The important thing here was people gave each other fruits because fruits are full of life,” says Ellenor. “They are like the sun and represent the returning sun – that’s why they are so pleasing, full of sweetness, and they bring happiness.”
The practice of putting oranges in stockings began with its introduction to Europe in the Middle Ages.
The King of France was the first person in Europe to see, never mind eat, an orange.
Crowds watched intently as he peeled the fruit and carefully separated it into segments, before tasting it.
Jumping forward to more modern times, according to an online history on Algeria, somewhere between 1892 and 1900, missionary Catholic priest, Brother Marie-Clément Rodier, made grafts from an uncultivated tree that had sprung up among thorn bushes in the orphanage orchard where he lived and worked. This graft resulted in the Clementine, which was named by the botanist Charles Louis Trabut and initially called “Mandarinette.”
“The Chinese had made this hybrid thousands of years before, so it wasn’t a new fruit, but it was new to the West,” says Ellenor. “Americans planted them all over California and people just loved them – so brightly coloured, easy to peel, segments full of juice – and no seeds.”
Ellenor says the tradition of giving an orange at Christmas, popular around the world, quickly spread across North America.
“They came on the railway and you didn’t get them until Christmas Eve,” Ellenor says, imagining bitter cold winters on the Saskatchewan Prairie.
“They were miraculous; a child got an orange in the sock and it was magic, it glowed.”
In cherishing the oranges, Ellenor says recipients hear the ancient voices that said ‘we want the sun to return, we depend on the sun.’”
The folklore around the orange reminds us how we’re all connected, he adds.