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Who Wants the Tangerine?

Regular readers will know that I’m a sci-fi fan, including Doctor Who. But you may not know that in recent years, Doctor Who does a Christmas special, and tangerines – or other citrus fruit – have played roles in more than one of them. But in the 2014 special, Last Christmas, Santa (yes, he made an appearance as well) got the bad news that no one wants the tangerine.

When I saw that, I wanted to jump up, raise my hand, and say, “I want it!” And it’s true, because for me, having that bit of gold on Christmas brings back a lot of memories.

Picture this, if you will. A young boy and girl creeping into their living room on Christmas morning. Their parents are still asleep, and it’s completely black outside. The only real light is from the tree, casting a gentle glow on the presents heaped around the base. The tree and light transform the 1970’s era living room into something new and beautiful.

The children look at the presents with longing, but they know they’re not allowed to do anything until their parents are up. Instead, they turn their attention to their stockings.

Now, these stockings – hand-knit by a friend of the family – aren’t hung by the chimney, for two reasons. One, even though the family has a woodstove at the time, it’s not a fireplace, so it doesn’t have a mantle where you could hang things. (In later years, they didn’t have a woodstove, and hanging stockings by a monitor heater doesn’t have the same appeal.)

And two, by this point the stockings are far too heavy to hang from anything. Instead, they bulge in intriguing ways from where they’ve been laid out carefully on the piano bench.

The children know they can open what’s in the stockings right away, so they immediately dive in. Each year, they get something a little different. Sometimes it’s toys, or candy, or in later years books or CDs.

But they can count on two items without fail: at the bottom of the stocking will be a huge apple and an equally massive orange.

This was always my experience of Christmas. Even when we didn’t believe in Santa anymore, our stockings always had fruit at the bottom, including an orange.

At the time, I thought this was Mom’s way of making sure we had at least something healthy on Christmas. I didn’t realize that giving citrus fruit was a common tradition, not only here in the U.S. but also in Great Britain. Maybe I would have if Doctor Whohad Christmas specials at the time. (Yes, we did watch Doctor Whoback then, too. It was one of our family shows.)

Only later did I realize that this tradition has a few different meanings.

One is the simple fact that citrus of any kind used to be a real treat, especially in northern climates. Since those fruits don’t grow well here, in earlier decades it took a special effort to get oranges, tangerines, clementines, satsumas, etc. in the winter. I expect that even when I was growing up, they might have been a little more expensive, so we might not have gotten them as often except on special occasions.

Then some people like to consider these fruits as symbols of giving and sharing, since they can easily be split into segments.

Whatever the broader reason, for me, having oranges or other citrus fruits this time of year reminds me of those long-ago mornings, waiting with anticipation to see what Christmas had in store for me. And even though I liked the excitement of surprise and guessing, I also found it comforting in a way to know I could always count on something being the same.

These days, of course, I don’t have anyone to fill my stocking, but I still have it, and I still hang it up every year.

And I love getting the bright burst of flavor from tangerines and other fruit in the dark of winter, when nothing much is growing here in Maine.

How about you? Did you (or do you) get oranges of some kind in your stockings, and did you like that? Or do you have another favorite Christmas tradition? I’d love to hear it.

Whether you celebrate the holiday or not, I hope you can find some hint of the sun and warmth even in these times of limited daylight and cold. And if you do celebrate, I hope you and yours have a merry Christmas.

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