‘Oranges at Christmas’

This essay was first heard as a radio essay on the “Sunrise” program of WUML, 92.5 FM, at UMass Lowell. Executive producer Chris Dunlap assembled writers in the area for the daily essay feature, a  popular component of the morning public affairs show. I shared this essay with rh.com readers for the first time in 2009. We need to hear from Henri Marchand soon. It’s time for his “Fruitcake” essay, which, like the cake, never gets old (well, almost never).—PM

Oranges at Christmas

This week, my wife bought a bag of small navel oranges at Market Basket, the first of these babies for the season. When I opened the plastic bag the twelve baseball-sized oranges spilled over the counter and the scent of orange oil filled the kitchen. I look forward to the first seedless oranges from the tropical groves along the Pacific or Gulf coasts. If I didn’t know better, I’d picture ripe oranges pulling down the fronds of palm trees in the sun.

I was lucky enough to live in Southern California one year during the growing season. One night driving south on the San Diego Freeway past the old mission at San Juan Capistrano I passed a vast orange grove in blossom, the scent of orange flowers ten times more powerful than the apple blossoms I’d grown up with in the Merrimack Valley. Some of the blooming orange trees still had fruit from the past crop on the branches. The idea of walking into a backyard in Laguna Beach and picking an orange or a lemon off a tree seemed impossibly exotic to a New Englander. A pear or a peach, yes, but tropical fruit along the driveway? No way.

The incredible special bounty of a giant navel orange from far away probably explains why my parents thought of it as enough of a gift to stuff a couple in Christmas stockings for my brothers and me when we were young. On Christmas morning you could count on finding one or two in with a few novelty toys, candy canes, and maybe a pair of gloves.

The oranges at Christmas come to us by way of Saint Nicholas–yes, the same as in “the stockings were hung by the chimney with care in hope that St. Nicholas soon would be there,” according to the St. Nicholas Center on the Web. The original Nicholas was a 4th-century Christian in what is now southern Turkey who was known for helping the poor. One legend has Nicholas tossing small bags of gold through an open window at night into the shoes of young women who needed dowry money to get married. This is the source of the Christmas stocking tradition—those long red socks hung by the fireplace the night before Christmas in hope of being filled with gifts in the morning. Nicholas’s bag of gold became a ball of gold as the story evolved—and the ball of gold turned into an orange stuffed into the toe of the stocking. There it is.

In western Canada there’s an age-old tradition of the Christmas season beginning with the delivery of the first batch of mandarin oranges from Japan in British Columbia. The Vancouver festival combines Santa Claus and Japanese dancers. Bright as light bulbs on the kitchen table, the oranges promise sunshine as late December daylight shrinks in the shortest days of the year.

With each successive winter week the navel oranges from California get better and bigger, until the harvest season passes. Then it’s back to the Valencias from Florida, the oranges with seeds, the juice oranges, not the eating oranges with the thick spongy skin that peels off like wrapping.

So the oranges are old gold, and the fruit is a nod to Saint Nick. People sometimes do things because they’ve always done them or they may do things for reasons of their own that have nothing to do with the reason other people do those same things.

My parents never talked about Nicholas and his golden gifts 1,700 years ago. They never talked about the kids in Europe who left their shoes and socks by the fireplace on Christmas Eve hundreds of years later. In the Great Depression of the 1930s, when my folks were growing up in Lowell, Massachusetts, an orange was a treat in a poor family. When my folks put oranges in our stockings later on it was their own kind of gold that they were giving us. I told my son he’d get one this year if we’re lucky.

—Paul Marion


Another Irish Tradition: Candles in the Window at Christmas

This is a repost of an article I did last year about the tradition of candles in the window at Christmas time along with some personal comments. It’s a tradition with deep roots in my Irish heritage. I’ve added a photo of the Sweeney house on St. James Street – behind the Sacred Heart Church in Lowell - lighted-up for Christmas.

December 20th, 2011

Christmas Traditions: Candles in the Window and Memories

by Marie

One of my favorite Christmas traditions is placing candles in the windows of our home. I still use some triple candles used years ago to light-up the Sweeney home on St. James Street. While the white light is my preference, my mother preferred the soft glow of amber in her windows. Growing up as the oldest of five, many of the decorating chores fell to me – candles in the window, decorating the fireplace mantle, creating a wrapped-box Christmas gift motif on the front door, helping set-up the illuminated manger nestled in the front yard shrubbery. Bill and I celebrated our first Christmas together was just days after our wedding in 1967. It was a hectic time but a thoughtful shower gift of Christmas tree decorations and a stand meant we just needed a tree. Bill spent the outrageous sum of $5 for a beautiful tree from Danas Market on Andover Street – it was their last one! Over the years we’ve collected many ornaments in our travels and searching never missing a perusal in those special Christmas shops. Alas, this year they are still stored as we have downsized to a smaller table-top tree – it glows with white lights and some small gold balls. We have a second small tree that glows with lights and miniature Waterford ornaments that speaks of our Irish heritage and a reminder of the special significance of a light in the window in the homes in Ireland.

The candle in the window at Christmas symbolizes many things in Ireland. It’s still a favorite traditional Irish Christmas decoration, harkening back to that ancient Christmas Eve when Mary and Joseph could find no shelter. It is a symbol of Irish hospitality – a way of welcoming Mary and Joseph…and any travelers who might happen to pass by looking for a warm place to stay.

In the days when it was illegal and even dangerous to practice the Catholic faith in Ireland because of the oppressive Penal Laws, the candles seen in the windows of Irish homes at Christmas also signaled traveling priests that this was a home where they would be welcome and where they could safely conduct the traditional Irish Catholic Christmas Mass.

The words from the “Kerry Christmas Carol” give a senses of the roots of this old Irish tradition”:

Don’t blow the tall white candle out But leave it burning bright, So that they’ll know they’re welcome here This holy Christmas night!

The Sweeney Home at 27 St. James Street in Lowell, Massachusetts (circa late 1950s)

What are your family, faith and ethnic traditions?