Remembered holiday stories and simple gifts

by Terry B on December 24, 2008

With the current economy—and indeed, with the world we live in now—there are many places I could take this story. Instead, I’ll just give it to you. Take it where you will.

My maternal grandmother grew up on a farm in southern Illinois, one of twelve children. Big families on farms were common then, even necessary. You needed enough hands to make sure everything got done, and death was always a real possibility. My grandmother’s family was no different—only six of the twelve children made it past young adulthood.

Still, my grandmother loved farm life. As a young woman, she was shipped off to St. Louis to make her way in the big city. And she did, becoming a seamstress in the city’s then bustling garment district along Washington Avenue. But whenever she started telling stories, they were invariably about life on the farm.

To my young city boy ears, none of these stories made me feel that I’d missed out on anything not growing up on a farm. They ranged from slightly dull to downright horrifying. There was one, for instance, of the grown-ups and older kids walking over to a neighbor’s house for Sunday dinner, leaving the middle and younger kids behind [I was never clear why]. While the adults were gone, the farm bull, a creature with a particularly well developed mean streak, broke through a fence and gored the beloved and necessary family horse, Dan. Parents were summoned. When they returned, my great grandfather shot the dying horse and the bull, in that order.

One story, though, stuck with me and changed in meaning as I heard it over the years. Not so much a story, really—just a fact remembered from her childhood, one she shared at some point during the Christmas holidays every year without fail. With twelve children and the no-nonsense take on things that farm living demands, Christmas was not the orgy of presents all too common these days. Still, I know there were dolls and tops and hair ribbons and at least one child-sized wagon or sleigh; I’ve heard the stories and seen photographs. But these were not the gifts my grandmother remembered when she spoke of Christmas on the farm. The gift she remembered—something each family member got every year, but only at Christmas—was a fresh orange.

She never said so, but I’m guessing these oranges she remembered were not the juicy, seedless navel beauties we buy by the bagful, nearly the size of regulation softballs, whenever the mood strikes us. Still, to the young farm girl who became my grandmother, these once-a-year treats were exotic. Magical, even, having traveled an unimaginable distance from some unknown land.

Filtered through my young, urban ears, this story made my grandmother’s farm life seem utterly impoverished, gray and bereft of even the simplest of pleasures—or at the very least, well, backwards. In my early teens, I took the annual reminder of this humble gift as a gentle rebuke of the numerous gifts lavished on my brother and me [although by most standards, our gifts were humble too].

It was only later as an adult, long after my grandmother had passed away, that I understood the look in her eyes, the softening of her features, as she told us of the oranges every year. Even now, with our global reach giving us oranges stacked high in the supermarket year ’round, how can you not respond to the simple pleasure of tearing into the peel of an orange, having its bright fragrance wrap around you, fill the room and linger on your hands the rest of the day? Now imagine having this experience only once a year.

Happy holidays, everyone. I hope someone gives you something as remarkable as an orange.

Christmases past

Last year at this time, I wrote Celebrate, big or small, about extravagant Christmas decorations and an elegantly simple e.e. cummings poem.

Two years ago, “…Christmas gifts. Hahahaha!” talked about a treasured Christmas tradition in our family: Christmas Eve dinner in Chinatown.

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{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Lauren December 24, 2008 at 1:13 pm

This story gave me chills because it is so similar to my grandmother’s – after coming to the United States from Italy and settling in a rural Maine town, she received an orange for Christmas – something she had never had in Genova. Subsequently, we all receive them every year and they are always the first gift – we call them the “grammy oranges”. Thanks for the humble, sweet musings and happy holidays!

Carol December 24, 2008 at 2:40 pm

Thank you for sharing such poignant memories and the special meaning of oranges. As a child my mother always put an orange in our Christmas stockings. In my accountant-like child’s eyes I presumed the orange helped make the stocking seem fuller. Also there was a Brazil nut, an almond and a walnut. You help me see that those oranges and nuts may have symbolized far more riches than my child’s eye’s could imagine. What a gift.

Terry B December 24, 2008 at 4:09 pm

Lauren—”Grammy oranges.” What a lovely name and a great holiday tradition. When I was talking to Marion about writing this story, she said that when her mother was growing up in Eastern Europe, she was a teenager the first time she had an orange. She was very sick at the time, and a neighbor brought it over to help make her feel better.

Carol—As much as we all like to think of children having magical views of the world [and there is that aspect to childhood, the idea that anything is possible], you’re exactly right—there is an account-like eye in all children too. Thanks for putting it so perfectly.

Randi December 24, 2008 at 4:19 pm

We always got a large navel orange and some nuts in our stockings every Christmas. We loved it even though we had them throughout the year.

susan c December 24, 2008 at 6:48 pm

A few years ago, a friend asked us to bring a “favorite Christmas memory” to share at a party. I was surprised at how many guests shared the orange story. One said that she couldn’t even bear to eat the orange because it was so treasured.

Joy the Baker December 24, 2008 at 7:05 pm

Thank you for sharing such a beautiful memory. It definitely helped me slow down and appreciate today… just as i was about to get frantic about all the little things I have to get done. I hope you have a great holiday!

altadenahiker December 25, 2008 at 3:27 pm

I too have heard an orange story. This one from someone who was a child in Poland during the 70′s and 80′s. The kids would get some modest gifts, but the most treasured was the orange each received. He’d take it apart carefully and stretch it out over several days.

Several days for one orange. We’re so spoiled. Now, on to the cheap champagne! Er, I mean the reasonably-priced cava!

Mimi December 25, 2008 at 9:12 pm

Terry, once again you’ve hit upon a memory so much like my own. I wrote about it two years ago, about the year my father received only a few oranges and apples and some jacks for Christmas.

He always made sure we had plenty of oranges all winter long.

My grandmother was a seamstress, too.

Foodista December 26, 2008 at 4:51 am

Wishing you a wonderful Christmas from all of us here in Foodista.

Terry B December 26, 2008 at 5:01 pm

Randi—Isn’t it nice that something now ordinary can be made to feel special as part of a family tradition?

susan c—The comments on this post have surprised me too. I had no idea that my grandmother’s experience was such a widely shared and treasured one!

Joy—Glad I helped you slow down; I think we all get so swept up in our holiday to-do lists that we sometimes forget it’s really about spending time with family and friends, not having every detail be Martha-Stewart perfect.

altadenahiker—Thank you for adding your story here!

Mimi—I know you’re always telling stories of your beloved grandmother. Sharing this story has had me thinking about my grandmother a lot the last few days.

Foodista—Thanks for stopping by!

Carolyn December 27, 2008 at 4:15 pm

My memory is going to Christmas Eve services at the local Lutheran Church (in Soulard) where the church elders gave out little mesh bags of hard candy and an orange. It was a total wonder, but this was the 1950s, a period totally predating global agricultural imports. Thanks for the trip back in time.

Laura December 29, 2008 at 9:20 pm

I love this story. Such a wonderful reminder of the joys that relative scarcity (and then brief bouts of plenty) can provide. My sister and I used to get oranges in our stockings as well, mostly because Laura Ingalls Wilder had (we read those books until they fell apart when we were growing up), but we always enjoyed despite having them all winter long.

Toni December 30, 2008 at 1:15 am

I got to this story late, as I’m here in New Mexico. But the story is timeless, so I guess there’s no such thing as late. Thanks for sharing it, Terry.

This year, my friends here decided to do a poetry exchange instead of a gift exchange….. What a spectacular idea it was!

I hope the coming year brings you and Marion good health, prosperity, and lots of love.

kitty December 30, 2008 at 3:14 am

wonderful story, Terry.
I feel it’s so important, especially during the indulgent holidays to appreciate what we already have…which is already so much. We are all so very fortunate.

Thanks for the lovely tale!

Terry B December 30, 2008 at 5:15 am

Carolyn—Yes, these days with kiwis from New Zealand and asparagus from Australia, it’s hard to imagine a time when oranges from California or Florida were exotic.

Laura—Thank you for your lovely story. How cool to see oranges made special to two little girls by books.

Toni—The poetry exchange sounds wonderful—as does time spent in New Mexico. And thanks for the lovely wishes, my friend. I hope 2009 is a stellar one for you too.

Thank you, kitty! I think this year people seemed to get the idea that the holidays are about sharing with friends and family, not stuff.

lo December 30, 2008 at 7:07 pm

So glad I stumbled over here to read this great tale. I definitely think it’s a salient reminder to those of us who have enjoyed a very blessed holiday — to look toward simplicity and appreciate the little things.

Hope 2009 brings you all the best of those simple pleasures!

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