During this holiday season, I have been thinking about the tradition of finding oranges in Christmas stockings. While this tradition dates back as far as St. Nicholas, I wondered why it was considered such a big deal in my family. Using what I know of family history, American history, and a wee bit of logic, I began to examine the circumstances surrounding Dad’s upbringing in the Colorado mountains in the early 1940s.
While the railroad has transported oranges from California (and even Florida) to the western United States since the late 1800s, even by the 1940s, while oranges were available in most of the country, they were more difficult to locate in the remote mountain regions. In 1944, my grandparents and great-grandparents took a gamble and purchased a neglected, run down piece of property now known as the Mt. Princeton Hot Springs, located in Nathrop, Colorado.
While oranges were certainly available 125 miles away in Denver and occasionally 17 miles away in Salida, my grandparents were putting any available money into rebuilding the hot springs. Also, America was still fighting the second World War. Rubber was among the many items rationed, and Grandad’s car had old tires with minimal tread. In the days before snow tires, driving the rough mountain roads with such tires was not only challenging but dangerous. A mountain storm could halt life in the mountains for days, and to preserve the life of the tires, longer trips were limited.
In addition to the remote location, my grandparent’s daily diet was also influenced by Grandad’s first job. At the old age of 14, he entered the Navy in World War I, serving as a ship’s cook. Here, he developed skills as a fry cook. Meat and potatoes were the traditional fare he served. As an adult, Grandad was less likely to serve fresh fruits and vegetables with the exception of cabbage, potatoes, and root vegetables. I think this was probably a combination of life-long cooking habits, the need for rich, hearty meals to provide fuel for a long day of labor, and the habit of purchasing staples with a longer shelf life. An orange on Christmas morning was a rare treat.
But regardless of the lack of money or the remote location, Christmas was always special. It was special because the family was together. They would open their small offerings for each other, and then gather around the fireplace and see Santa’s gifts. In the toe of each stocking, each year, without fail, was an orange. My great-grandmother would gather the oranges for a breakfast fruit salad to accompany the traditional breakfast of coffee, eggs, fried potatoes, and rainbow trout. While I only had the opportunity to spend time with my grandmother (and namesake) Margaret, stories like these help me “get to know” those who have gone before.
Thank you for reading! Nollaig Shona Dhuit!
Wishing you fruitful labors, bountiful blessings, and a healthy 2013!