Oranges have been "decking the halls" of our homes and social gatherings since ancient times, playing a symbolic role in our winter festivities. In today's world, the symbolism these citrus fruits hold is sometimes obscured by commercialism and forgotten due to the erasure of pagan origins by Christian influences, but their historical significance persists. But the question is why and how did it all start?
Together, let’s embrace the opportunity to slow down and discover a richer meaning behind our Winter celebrations. Whether you choose to craft cherished memories or stir up new traditions, consider drawing inspiration from the roots of holiday customs. Stay curious and open-minded, acknowledging that the true origins might have been obscured by historical complexities like colonialism, patriarchy, and religious oppression - and it’s our duty to re-educate ourselves on these matters (for example, do some research on the Cuetlaxochitl flower (pronounced kwet-la-sho-she of Aztecan origin), better known as the poinsettia, mistletoe, holly, evergreen trees, candles, confections, etc., because they are vastly different from what many of us were taught). As you build on traditions, make them uniquely resonate with you, allowing each practice to feel both fulfilling and authentic for you and your loved ones. Now back to oranges…
With origins tracing back to Asia, citrus fruits such as oranges symbolize good fortune and can often be seen resting on ancestral altars of traditional Asian restaurants, working to amplify their wishes for prosperity. Carried across Asia by trade routes, they journeyed to the Mediterranean, and deeper into Europe, where oranges were cherished exotic treasures and where their connection to Winter Solstice celebrations began to unfold.
Both the celebration of Saturnalia (Roman) and Yule (Norse Heathenry & Celtic) use the fragrance, color, and round shape of oranges to symbolize the sun, evoking memories of warmer days, symbolizing hope and the return of light (Sun) during the Winter Solstice, where we experience the longest night of the year and days start to wax longer afterward. This is where we find the inspiration for many of our Christmas traditions as we know them today, replacing the coming or returning to the Solar Sun with the birth of the Son of God.
The origins of one of the most recognizable decorations utilizing oranges are called Pomanders. Their invention is rooted from necessity rather than frivolity, as food items, especially as exotic and treasured as an orange, could not be wasted. It derives from a French term “pomme d’ambre” — which roughly translates to “apple of amber” - describing a ball made for perfume. d’Ambre comes from the name ambergris, which was a common perfumer's ingredient. While the exact origin of pomanders is vague, we can link it to the 13th Century and the outbreak of the Bubonic Plague. They appear in many forms - as simple as an orange with a few cloves encrusting the surface or painstakingly bedecked in designs - to those used by the elite made of intricate metalwork ornamentation that would be worn around one’s neck, belt, wrist, or finger with separate compartments for holding herbs, spices, and citrus believed (and now known) for their antiseptic, antibacterial, antiviral, antimicrobial, and a variety of other health benefits like increased absorption of other vitamins and minerals, boosting immunity, metabolism, cardiovascular, and cognitive health in addition to uplifting the mood, as well as demonstrating stimulating and energizing properties.
During the 17th and 18th century, pomanders moved from being considered less of a necessity and became a frivolity. Only the wealthiest homes could allocate good food stores for decorative purposes. Though there is an indication that they were still used as air purifiers in musty cupboards and to ease the discomfort of road-weary travelers. By the 19th century, Victorians had firmly adopted these pomanders and similar decorations as a Christmas tradition. Moving into the 1920s, the Rockefellers assisted in funding the renovations of Colonial Williamsburg. During the 1930s there was a resurgence of decorating with fruited garlands, and pomanders further instilled their popularity across the USA. This is in part due to the research of Mrs. Louise Fischer, who was tasked with decorating Colonial Williamsburg for Christmas between 1936-39. She searched the Library of Congress for references of English and American decorating traditions of the Colonial Era and came across the Della Robbia style. The origins of this decorative style are considered to be connected to the late 17th-century sculptor Luca della Robbia known for their fruited foliage-laden wood carvings. Each and every fruit had its symbolism (pineapple - welcome, pomegranate or apple - carnal knowledge and immortality, oranges - prosperity, protection), when paired with evergreens, oranges embody vitality and enduring life through the winter's chill. This led to grand decoration designing competitions throughout the USA for decades to follow. The style became so popular from the 1930s onward it found its way onto dinnerware, wallpaper, and the like.
Create your own Pomanders and Dehydrating Orange Slices
For pomanders, ensure proper drying, as fresh pomanders won't last as long. Zesting the orange skin can enhance gradual dehydration and pre-poking holes with a skewer or toothpick can ease the process of applying cloves. Properly dried pomanders should feel lightweight and sound hollow when tapped. Once you are finished decorating your pomanders - place them in a dark dry paper bag to fully dehydrate - be sure to check daily for mold
- or place in the oven on the lowest setting.
For dehydrating orange slices, using a kitchen mandolin or careful knife skills evenly slice your orange. Arrange evenly on a baking sheet (I like to place parchment or aluminum foil down) bake at 170-180 degrees Fahrenheit for 4-6 hours, flipping every hour.
This year I had the chance to lead a festive jar candle workshop where we made pomander inspired candles smell delicious and look lovely.
I remember creating homemade ornaments a few times during my childhood, a tradition I continue to carry with me. However, gift-giving and baking delectable treats were stronger parts of my family's traditions, and oranges often made an appearance. The act of gift-giving is believed to have originated in Germany, as do several of our beloved holiday recipes. Oranges and other tasty treats were placed in the children’s shoes before “stockings were hung by the chimney with care”. Children were told stories that St. Nicolas only brought gifts to reward good behavior and kindness.
At some point, I remember becoming aware of tangerines arriving in the stores complete with special marketing campaigns indicating the urgency as they only arrive “once” a year - triggering bouts of nostalgia from the older generations of my family. They would reminisce about waking up to find an orange and a soft peppermint stick in their stockings, that they hung on the back of their chair or the end of the bed. Trusty pocket knives would be used to open an orange just enough to jam the soft peppermint stick into its juicy center using the candy as a makeshift straw combining the bright, tartness of the orange juice with the sweet, minty flavor of the candy stick. I have tried it but as with most of my family we prefer savoring the flavor of the peppermint separate from our oranges. Now tangerines have become a more common staple year round in grocery stores but I still remember the excitement of getting a box of “Cuties” for holiday snacking.
My first introduction to pomanders was while reading the Felicity and Samantha books from the American Girl series. I begged to recreate what I read in the pages. That is still one of my favorite Christmas trees that we decorated while I was a child - though what really stands out to me are the cooking traditions of using orange in dishes. I’ll be honest - I’ve never been a huge fan of Ambrosia salad but some of the Mandarin Orange-laden salads my aunt made were delicious. In the South, Mulled Cider or Wassail was extremely popular during the 1990s - of course, we would say Wah-sa-ale in the deepest Southern drawl possible or just “Savannah Mix” as most people used that rather than making homemade. I thought one year I drank it until it made me sick - instead I came down with a terrible flu that helped us ring in Y2K. Still haven’t had much of a taste for it since, I must say; however, I made it again last year for the DnD crew and it was tastier than I remember.
Wassail recipe - this is super simple to throw in a crock pot or to simmer on the stove - if you don’t like loose spices in your cup - place spices in a disposable tea bag, reusable muslin bag, or cheesecloth sachet. Feel free to add cranberries or cranberry juice if you like.
1 gallon of apple cider
2 cups orange or pineapple juice
1 cup lemon juice
3-6 cinnamon sticks
20 (1 tbsp) whole cloves
½ tsp of allspice
1 cup of sugar (or more to taste)
One of my all-time favorites was an orange pound cake with a glaze made with fresh zest and juice, that my aunt made - my uncle’s favorite anything is citrus-based - and she has always been an amazing cook. These days my little cluster’s tradition is making orange tea cakes - for which we need a whole bag of Sunkist Oranges - this began while my partner was taking a home ec class in high school - the tea cakes became so popular that he continues to make them every year and we are shipping them to several because everyone loves them.
Do you have holiday traditions, new or old, that utilize oranges? I would love to hear about them or anything you would like to share about your practices.