The gift that keeps on giving
Words by Christine Van Dyk
My grandmother grew up on a pecan farm outside Goodwater, Alabama, or as she liked to say, “Just a piece up the road from Opelika.” After school she moved to Miami, a growing town where the Florida peninsula tumbled into the Atlantic Ocean. While others came for the sun and society season, she arrived as a seamstress when it was made clear the college education available to her brothers was not an option for her.
As a dressmaker for what would become the quintessential Florida department store, she wintered in Miami and summered in Manhattan. And every December she climbed aboard the City of Miami steamliner and headed toward Goodwater. Along with the few Christmas presents she could afford, she brought home a bag of navel oranges and Marsh White grapefruits.
With the Great Depression approaching, citrus was a rare luxury few could afford. In the dead of winter it brought to mind blue skies, palm trees, and sandy beaches—a little bit of sunshine in an otherwise bleak landscape.
But why oranges for Christmas??
In the fourth century a bishop learned of a poor man who couldn’t afford the dowries for his three daughters to marry. Moved to action, he crept onto the man's roof and tossed three sacks of gold down the chimney. The gold landed in the stockings hanging above the hearth, and over time folks began putting oranges in stockings to symbolize the kindness of Saint Nicholas.
Eventually, Floridians found their own reasons for enjoying oranges at Christmas. One of the most popular has to do with the segmented design. Easy to separate and made for sharing, the fruit has become a symbol for the season of giving. It’s still a Florida tradition to share citrus fruit with loved ones in colder climates. When I married a man from Michigan we sent bags of oranges to his family at Christmas—a little bit of Florida sunshine from my home to theirs.
My grandmother always believed citrus made the sweetest gift. As children we were guaranteed to find a navel orange and some whole pecans in the toes of our stockings. I’d like to say we appreciated the gesture as much as her kinfolk did, but the truth is, we didn’t.
As this holiday season approaches, I’ll tell my own kids about the simple gift that brought a smile to poor children at Christmas and about the soft-spoken lady who rode the train home with her bags of oranges. I hope after all the other presents have been unwrapped they’ll come to realize what’s left behind is Saint Nicholas’ way of saving the very best for last.
Ambrosia for Christmas
When my grandmother returned from Goodwater she’d have exchanged her bags of citrus for pecans. Plucked from the trees on her father’s farm, she added them to her signature ambrosia recipe, which featured prominently on our family’s Christmas menu. While others might add pineapple, marshmallows, or sour cream to their recipe, Grandma believed the “food of the gods” was best enjoyed simply so the crunch of her daddy’s pecans could be appreciated and the oranges could shine.
- 1/2–1 cup fresh orange juice
- 3–4 large navel oranges, sectioned
- 1/2–1 cup pecans, chopped
- 1 cup coconut, frozen or fresh
- 1 cup cherries, optional
Section the oranges overtop a large serving bowl to collect liquid. Add additional fresh orange juice as needed. Gently toss the oranges, pecans, and coconut. Cover and refrigerate, gently stirring occasionally. Before serving, add cherries and sweeten with powdered sugar if desired. Using a slotted spoon to drain the juice, spoon into dessert glasses, and top with additional coconut flakes.