It's a tradition in many families, but where exactly did it come from? We dug into the history to learn about the origins of this Christmas tradition.

Victoria Seaver, M.S., R.D.
November 13, 2020
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Every single Christmas, for as long as I can remember, I've gotten an orange in my stocking. Or sometimes a clementine, depending on what's in the fridge. I always have a little chuckle at the tradition and, after drinking about five cups of tea and eating half the chocolate from my stocking, I eventually get around to eating it. Now I'm the one who adds an orange to my husband's stocking, and vice versa. But even after all these years, I've never even thought of why this is a tradition at all, until now. So, I dug into the history to learn more.

Credit: Getty / UncleDmytro

They were a rarity, so an orange was a true gift

My research started out with my parents—the original orange-givers in my life—and contrary to what my Dad thought, the oranges were not actually "used to fill up space in the stocking to make it look fuller." They were however a rarity, especially in England, where my Mom—and her Mom—grew up. Oranges haven't always been the grocery store staple we know today and when they were available, they weren't cheap, so as my Mom said, "Getting an orange in your stocking was a real treat." This wasn't just a thing in England—many articles I read noted that oranges were at times the only gift under the tree, especially during the Great Depression.

They're said to represent a gift of gold from Saint Nicholas

One theory behind the tradition of oranges in the stocking stems from the generosity of Saint Nicholas (also known as Santa Claus, Father Christmas, Kris Kringle and Old Saint Nick), who was the son of a wealthy merchant and later in life a bishop. It's said that he lived near a father and his three daughters who had fallen on hard times, so Nicholas secretively threw three bags of gold through their window, which were rumored to have landed in each of the girl's stockings that were hanging on the mantelpiece to dry. The father eventually found out who the gift giver was and was so moved he told everyone in town about Nicholas.

This was not only the origin of Santa Claus but also one reason for oranges—which represent bags of gold—in our stockings.

They exemplify the season of giving

This last theory might be my favorite. Some say that the orange exemplifies the season of giving, as the orange segments can be easily shared with others—and I just love that! And it makes me think of the times I've shared an orange with someone. I'll always remember splitting an orange with my friend, Brooke, in English class senior year, which was the last period of the day before lacrosse practice. Maybe it was a placebo effect, but I swear it made me play better and was one of the reasons I became interested in how nutrition affects the body.

I also think of the countless times my Mom would reach back in the car to hand me half of her orange, and the numerous dried-up orange peels we'd always find in her van. And just like there's an unwritten rule in my family that if you're making a cup of tea, you need to ask everyone else in the room if they want one too (and never finish the milk without leaving some for Mom's tea), the same can be said for sharing oranges. And those juicy little segments just make it so easy to share.