Twice a month, legendary bartender/chef/restaurant insider Dave Mau pops by Stick a Fork In It to chime in about a random OC food or drink musing of his choice. Enjoy!
It’s that time of year again—my favorite, actually. The build-up to the Christmas orgasm is on in spades and most, if not all, of us are scurrying around like ants either shopping, eating or drinking. Hopefully loads of all of it. My preferred haunt this particular season is Old Town Orange—not that it’s really any different than any other time of year (although DTSA is gradually making a resurgence in the depths of my sentimental soul). But Old Towns still holds a special place with its Mayberry-esque holiday vibe. It’s an unrepentant throwback to a time when it was “Merry Christmas,” not “Happy Holidays,” and if you need any evidence of that you needn’t look any further than its annual tree-lighting ceremony. It’s as non-secular as it gets and has the feel of an old-time church-hall revival with all the trappings. And I’m okay with that. Aside from the heavy-handed Christmas salutations, there is the ever-present relaxing afternoon of looking for knickknacks and stocking stuffers for that special someone on your list. And that includes yourself, by the way—sometimes the best gift is giving the gift of giving to oneself. This is America, after all.
While perusing the stalls and corners of the various antique malls, you might happen upon an apparition from the past, a fitting accent to the Yuletide spirit, one that would make Ebenezer Scrooge grimace with solemn and solid disdain for all things earnestly Navidad. We are talking the Great American Christmas Orange. It comes in various forms—usually an ornament, but sometimes an old print or photo. It’s a “Yankee Doodle Dandy” phenomenon that has some of its own background in local history, one that harkens back to a time before speedy travel between the coasts and frozen environs of the Midwest and East Coast. So how did this seemingly arbitrary tradition start? What could possibly make this manifestation of holiday mirth launch itself into our occidental cultural lexicon and land on the midcentury mantle of many a snowbound household—and beyond?
It’s a two-part story, the first being based in the deep-seated traditions that created our modern version of the season. That is, assuming you don’t prescribe to the notion that the Romans hijacked a pagan holiday for their own ends. But who would be silly enough to believe that? Really. But both narratives have their roots in the most powerfully heartfelt of Christmas settings: poverty. Lots and lots of awful, horrible, dehumanizing poverty.
Anyhoo . . .
You see, St. Nick as we know him (a.k.a. Saint Nicholas of Myra, the precursor to Sinterklass) lives on now primarily as the patron saint of gift giving, his other devotional manifestations now long evaporated. The story goes like this: One season, he visited a destitute family to deliver gold to prevent the daughters of the household from being sold into sex slavery to help pay the bills. Depending on which version of events you ascribe to, he either gave gold nuggets or balls by dropping them in the children’s stockings hanging by the fire to dry overnight, thus launching another Western holiday tradition. Those golden orbs were found the next morning by the grateful household and became the foundation for our own citrus-based tradition.
So how did these two far-flung worlds collide? Well, during the Great Depression, when food was scarce and money even more so, exotic fruit was revived as a gift to symbolize the holiday spirit—a penny-pinching measure in the toughest of times. If you lived in the arctic regions of the Great American interior, a fresh orange from California or Florida was a real treat and a reminder of a dreamy, more prosperous world outside your own, as well as maybe an ever-so-subtle glint at a life more hopeful.
Even after this, during the era of trains and early air travel, Christmas visitors would show their status by bringing citrus from sunnier regions to gift to their less (geographically) fortunate relatives in a possibly not-so-subtle show of excess and as a passive-aggressive holiday middle finger. Maybe they were just being nice—who knows? My family members from the West Coast would take oranges to businesses and family gatherings during the winter months to bring a glimpse of what lay outside the chilly environs of, say, Chicago or New York. This continued into the 1950s and ’60s; the Christmas Orange would end up as a kitschy reminder of those times, a throwback to an old-world aesthetic that harkened back far before us landing here. Hence the Great American Citrus Ornament, one you might well spot at your favorite purveyor of all things vintage.
So this season, look at it thusly. Remember that this time is for community and gratitude, two things that don’t always fall into line with our current state of affairs. But just for now, appreciate this small piece of OC history as a remembrance of a time (and times) when the plenty we can find so common wasn’t so common and a throwaway piece of fruit was a sign of hope . . . and oftentimes sustenance itself.
Chef, writer, bartender, photographer and overall bearer of mirth.