19: The Christmas Orange

19: The Christmas Orange

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Christmas in Canada

The Christmas Orange

I wish we could put up some of the Christmas spirit in jars and open a jar of it every month.

~Harlan Miller

Christmas always makes me think about a story that became a tradition in our family. It’s the story of The Christmas Orange. I think that most families have a story like this. My father would tell it in response to us children explaining how life as we knew it would end, if on Christmas morning we did not find The Mountain of Death Battle Station with a dungeon that really screams (batteries and extra severed limbs not included) under the tree.

“When I was your age,” as began all Dad’s stories that were intended to teach a valuable lesson, “we didn’t have store-bought toys.” The preamble to the story would be accompanied by much rolling of children’s eyes and a look around the room for the surest route to a quick escape.

I should also point out at this juncture that we children didn’t believe for a second that there was a time before toy stores. “When we were little,” Dad would continue in spite of the children’s eyes glazing over like a Christmas ham and our breathing becoming increasingly shallow and erratic, “most of our toys were handmade.” What followed was a totally unbelievable account of toy race cars being made out of sardine tins and dolls patched together from socks full of dog hair.

We children, now almost catatonic and making the same sounds as the dungeon in The Mountain of Death Battle Station, were further regaled with the story of how Aunt Minnie’s best Christmas present ever was a hat her husband made out of a tinfoil turkey roasting pan. Not only did one size fit all, but since it hadn’t been rinsed after its last use, Aunt Minnie also saved on perfume.

At this point our hopes of getting our Galactic Warriors or Barbie’s Off-Road Hair Salon began to fade. They were replaced with the fear that we would come down Christmas morning and instead of finding expensive and easily breakable toys under the tree, we’d discover a stick with a string tied to the end, wrapped in tinfoil.

Having succeeded in rendering the children immobile, it was now time for my father to bring out the story of The Christmas Orange.

As the story goes, as a kid Dad would open all his presents under the tree — a new block of wood for carving, or hand-me-down clothes originally worn by an older member of the opposite sex. Then the unmarried and slightly shady uncle who played the ponies would appear later in the day, and if the horse he had bet on the previous week had been full of the Christmas spirit, he would produce from behind his back . . . an orange.

To hear my Dad talk, back then when someone in Canada received an orange for Christmas people would travel for days just to get a glimpse of it nestled under the Christmas tree. In fact, even I am old enough to recall the days when people returning from a Florida vacation would lug a giant mesh bag of oranges back with them to hand out one at a time as family gifts. It didn’t matter that by the time you drove home half of them were soft and mushy, and home to a couple million fruit flies.

Unless you think I’m getting like my father as I settle comfortably into middle age myself, I do remember a time when you couldn’t get your hands on out-of-season fruit in Canada. Given the Canadian climate, that was pretty much ten and a half months of the year.

So it’s not surprising that rather than eat it, the Christmas orange would be put on display in various prominent locations around the house for envious guests to admire until at least New Year’s Day. Only when it was getting soft on one side and developing a colourful antibiotic patch of fuzzy green on the other did the family peel and pass sections of it around, and think of how lucky they were.

I have checked with my friends of a certain age, and every single one of them has a story from their father about the magic of getting an orange for Christmas. By my calculations, instead of being a rare and much envied event in the olden days, there must have been hundreds of thousands of oranges in circulation on Christmas Day.

Whatever the truth, to this day my wife and I still put an orange in the end of each other’s Christmas stockings to remind ourselves of how lucky we are. Last year we put one in my son’s Christmas stocking too, underneath all the candy, batteries and toys.

“What’s this?” he asked, eyeing it suspiciously after trying to figure out how to turn it on.

“Have I ever told you,” I asked, “the story of The Christmas Orange?”

~Stephen Lautens

Toronto, Ontario

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