Money wasn't something that could easily be found in early Appalachia. Things like candies, toys, and fresh fruit were hard to come by. An orange would have been an enormous gift at that time. Once I started researching the history behind this tradition, I recalled a book that helped explain how rare an orange was in 1850's Appalachia:
I remember trying to return the favor by giving him one of a pair of oranges that the teamsters had left as a treat. Bear had not experienced oranges before, and he watched me eat mine before he started on his own.
It took him an hour to finish. He peeled it slowly and studied the differing sides of the peels and smelled them and smelled his fingers. Then he ate each section very slowly, sniffing each one before he put it in his mouth. He savored every moment of his consumption of that orange. When he was done he collected all the pieces of peel and dried them in the sun like deer jerky. A month later, they had lost most of their color, but they still held the ghost of the orange's aroma, and Bear kept them in a gourd sealed with a wooden stopper to hold in the scent that would have to do him until another orange made its way into the mountains.
- Thirteen Moons by Charles Frazier
There is some history behind Christmas oranges. St. Nicholas was a bishop before he became a saint. The story says that he rode through a town where a storekeeper had three beautiful daughters and couldn't afford to offer a dowry for them. This meant that the girls would become destitute once their father passed away.
Bishop Nicholas knew that the father was a proud man so he tossed three sacks of gold through an open window (or chimney depending on who is telling the story) while the family was sleeping. One of the bags landed in the toe of a stocking that was hanging by the fire to dry. When the family got up the next morning, they found the gold, including the one in the stocking which had turned into a ball overnight.
Giving an orange today is a way to celebrate generosity without expecting anything in return. It symbolizes that gold ball and is a reminder to care for those in need.
Who knew there was so much behind a piece of fruit in a Christmas stocking? Did you get an orange in your stocking?