This is not my own Christmas story, this one belongs to my oldest son Corey. Corey is a parent now with two great kids of his own, Alex and Amanda, and our stories matter even more to us because we can give them to our families. Although the story isn’t mine, the oranges in the story are, albeit indirectly, and I never knew until Corey told me this story how special they were to him too.
Corey was in the army, a proud beret wearing jumping out of planes member of the 82nd Airborne Division. Corey jumped in to Desert Storm, he was on the second plane out of the United States, and we didn’t even know he was gone. I found out by opening the newspaper to a big headline about the 82nd Airborne deploying overnight. I think the neighbors heard me scream a block away, I didn’t even get to say good-bye. We were so lucky, he came home in the first wave of men returning from Kuwait and Iraq and he was in one piece.
That was 1991 and it was the first year he didn’t make it home for the holidays. He said a friend was asking all the guys in the barracks if they would take his CQ duty (command of quarters) so he could make it home, the friend offered him a hundred dollars but Corey just said, “Keep your money, I’ll do it for you man, it’s Christmas and I’ll be here anyway, get out of here and go see your family!”
Corey was doing whatever 20 somethings do when stuck on a desk in an empty barracks in the middle of the night, reading most likely, or checking doors and windows on patrol. The door opened and he looked up to see the Colonel and his wife come through the door. I’m sure he popped to attention and snapped a salute before the Colonel explained their mission was to visit everyone left that Christmas eve and bring them Christmas treats. The Colonel’s wife had put together stockings for the men and she gave Corey his to open.
He told her it finally felt like Christmas when he got to the toe of the sock and found nuts in their shells and an orange He explained that in our family that handful of nuts and the orange in the toe of Christmas stockings was part of our tradition and it just wouldn’t be Christmas without it. Corey said she just beamed, lit up like a Christmas tree, still smiling as she headed up stairs with another armful of stockings. The Colonel told Corey, “Private Snow,” and Private Snow stood up straight and wondered what he had done and was he in trouble? “Private Snow, you have just made my wife very happy with your words, and if my wife is happy then I am happy.”
Private Snow never forgot that, and this week he asked me where we got the tradition of Christmas oranges that means so much to us all? I have had an orange in the toe of my Christmas stocking since I was old enough to have a stocking and that’s a lot of years of oranges. My mother explained why to me when I was very, very small. Her family lived in Colorado and it was the 1920s and early 30s, they were ranchers and they didn’t have money for things like store bought toys and treats. But every year her parents spent the money to buy each of the kids a big, fat, fresh orange for their Christmas stocking. That was a serious luxury in the depths of a Colorado winter.
To me it means magic and love. Can you imagine being a little kid in Colorado in 1925? that was still frontier country in a lot of ways. Those oranges would have had to come by train across the Rockies in the depth of winter, they couldn’t be allowed to freeze or bruise or be damaged before they came to their final destination, in the toe of Imogene, Darlene, and Wayne Fowler’s stockings. It must have been amazing to have something so rare and exotic that one day a year. Sixty-six years later, the magic of the oranges came flooding back in a different time and place but connected by a thread that runs through us all. I can’t wait to have my orange on Christmas morning.