Live Like a King—Eat an Orange
By Kevin Heintz
Most Americans take oranges for granted. But these citrus fruits weren’t always lame stocking stuffers. They are a long-standing emblem of wealth. In Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations (1860), the protagonist, Pip, only gets oranges on Christmas, and compares eating them to wearing fine Sunday clothing. Eating oranges was a special, formal experience for many years in the western world.
The history of oranges starts in 2500 BC when scholars believe they were first cultivated. Oranges are not found in the wild. From their original Chinese cultivators, they came to Europe via the Moors in the 10th century. Requiring a steady tropical or subtropical climate, they became a delicacy on the continent. For centuries, they were a status symbol of the richest Europeans, as evidenced by their frequent presence in lavish still life paintings. Monarchs built orangeries, or special greenhouses for orange-growing. While Louis XIV built a most magnificent orangerie at Versailles, Augustus the Strong of Saxony is also known for his obsession with oranges. He is attributed with saying ‘once you taste one, you can never get enough.’ Eating an orange was purely a luxury, which means the only time an average person ate an orange was on Christmas when receiving one as a special gift or splurging on a few for Christmas dinner.
Cultivation techniques and advanced industrial infrastructure have made the orange a common feature in markets and a staple in everyday lunches, yet the presence of oranges at Christmas or on special occasions continues. Eating them should remind us of the everyday privileges modern civilization offers. Thus, little American urchins should be happy when they roll an orange out of their stockings on Christmas morning.