Picture any holiday and I’ll bet that specific foods are part of that snapshot. After all, holidays mean gatherings of people—and festive gatherings of people mean food and drink!
When you think about this, it makes sense from many standpoints. The very evolution of our species meant learning to cooperate and share resources to ensure our survival, so the “holiday meal” is, in a way, engrained in the human psyche.
Now here we are, having recently celebrated Thanksgiving. My husband and I had bucked tradition for years but then our daughter went to kindergarten and learned that you were “supposed” to have turkey on Thanksgiving. Ah well, turkey it is, because tradition and social norms, with their evolutionary roots, have great sway.
So when looking at tea, what about those billed as “Christmas teas”?
Why do they traditionally contain orange? And why did oranges become associated with Christmas anyway?
Some oranges, today’s navel and Cara Cara for example, ripen in December so it’s logical that a person might connect orange with tea at this time—except that tea production and the orange harvest don’t necessarily take place at the same time or in the same areas of the world.
Bergamot oil was apparently added to tea as early as 1824, but probably to mask the properties of inferior tea (read more about bergamot) and not because anyone was clamoring for bergamot-flavored tea for the holiday season.
For those who grew up in the U.S. during the Great Depression, money was tight, and in northern areas of the country, tropical fruit was still precious.
The orange’s long journey from warmer climes, its relative rarity, and its sweetness made it a prized gift for the holidays.
In his blog, Richard Howe says:
In western Canada there’s an age-old tradition of the Christmas season beginning with the delivery of the first batch of mandarin oranges from Japan in British Columbia. The Vancouver festival combines Santa Claus and Japanese dancers. Bright as light bulbs on the kitchen table, the oranges promise sunshine as late December daylight shrinks in the shortest days of the year.
Poetic sunshine—along with prosaic vitamin C, especially important in those early years when fruit and vegetables weren’t so readily available.
Many cite the St. Nicholas story as the inspiration for gifting oranges at Christmas. Tradition says the saint put a bag of gold into the shoes or stockings of young women who needed a dowry so they could marry. A bright orange, then, symbolizes the saint’s bag, or ball, of gold.
Beginning in the 1500s, the House of Orange-Nassau in the Netherlands strategically portrayed oranges, orange branches and blossoms, and the color orange in their artwork, reinforcing the association of “orange/Orange” with power.
Oranges were a symbol of wealth in other countries as well, so when used as decoration, like at Christmastime, they advertised status.
For a religious take, an apple and orange were put into Christmas stockings to symbolize the tree of knowledge (apple) and the tree of good and evil (orange) in the garden of Eden, according to Answers.com.
In the End,
Christmas and oranges became so entwined—for so many reasons—that orange-flavored tea seems a natural for “Christmas tea.”
Somewhere along the line, spices also became part of that mix, perhaps because they, like oranges, were first available only to the wealthy, and upon reaching more people, were reserved for special occasions (read more about cinnamon). Today’s Christmas tea, then, is a fragrant blend of orange, cinnamon, and cloves.
Oranges, spices, and tea—once exotic, reserved for the elite—are now commonplace, even taken for granted. Yet Christmas tea’s warm spiciness is still a treat, offsetting an evening’s chill and welcomed by any gathering of family and friends.
Sources: “Oranges at Christmas,” Richard Howe, December 19, 2010, RichardHowe.com; Holidays and Traditions, Answers.com.
Christmas tea pictured here is available at TeaHaus.com.