Sweet treats from far away—anticipating Japanese “Christmas oranges”

By Caitlin Webster

This Christmas, many children will find a mandarin orange in the toe of their stocking. Few will realize how rare a treat this once was.

In our current era of multinational trade agreements, large-scale container shipping, and modern cold-storage technology, Canadians have come to expect international products on their grocery shelves year-round; however, for much of the 20th century, many foreign-grown items were available only as seasonal luxuries. Not surprisingly, their arrival each year drew excitement and publicity on par with today’s latest high tech.

A particularly sweet example was the introduction of oranges from overseas to the Canadian market. For northern consumers accustomed to local fare, these delicacies were an exotic change of pace from their usual root-cellar staples. In fact, to publicize the availability of these oranges, some early promotional posters looked more like educational pamphlets.

Poster showing a colour drawing of an orange, surrounded by the phrase “Oranges from South Africa.” Poster also includes the text “When it was winter here it was summer in South Africa and the fruits have been ripened and ready for you to eat them to-day. Try them.”

Oranges from South Africa—try them (e010758837)

While all fresh fruit was welcome during cold Canadian winters, the introduction of Japanese “Christmas oranges” became a holiday tradition, as well as a symbol of modern trade. Starting in the 1880s, the arrival of satsuma oranges from Japan generated great excitement each year. British Columbians eagerly anticipated the first shipments every winter, when the Port of Vancouver hosted celebrations and media events beside ships delivering oranges.

Photograph showing port officials holding boxes of mandarin oranges, two Japanese women in traditional dress standing by a pallet of orange boxes, and other people and equipment on a pier adjacent to a ship.

Port officials and two Japanese women in traditional dress with crates of mandarin oranges at the Port of Vancouver. Credit: M. Toddington (e011435438)

Photograph of two Japanese women wearing traditional dress, one of whom is holding a peeled mandarin orange. Crates of oranges and a ship are visible in the background.

Two Japanese women in traditional dress posing with a mandarin orange. Credit: M. Toddington (e011435437)

The oranges were then loaded onto special trains and trucks for shipment east.

Photograph of workers with hundreds of crates of oranges on a ship deck.

Crates of Japanese oranges on a ship. Photo: Leonard Frank (e011435435)

Port workers unloading crates of oranges from a ship, using cranes and carts.

Unloading Japanese oranges from a ship. Photo: Leonard Frank (e011435434)

An article entitled “Japanese Oranges for Canadian Christmas,” which appeared in several Canadian newspapers, including The Granby Leader-Mail on December 30, 1927, described this phenomenon vividly:

“Rather more than four oranges for every man, woman and child in Canada or a total of 482,000 boxes of this fragrant fruit were landed at Pier “B-C” of the Canadian Pacific Railway at Vancouver in December, and were rushed through the prairie provinces and to the east of Canada for the Christmas trade. … [I]n all seven special trains were used to convey this huge consignment. The likelihood is therefore pretty strong that many of the oranges you may see hanging from Christmas trees or peeping out of Christmas stockings were grown in the Land of the Rising Sun. It i[s] further an indication of the great trade passing through the port of Vancouver.”

Photograph of a train at a pier, with a banner on a sign indicating that the train has a special shipment of Japanese oranges.

Japanese oranges at CPR Pier “B-C.” Photo: Leonard Frank (e011435433)

By the 1980s, consumers no longer saw mandarin oranges as rare, special-occasion luxuries. Advances in modern container shipping, as well as an influx of oranges from China and California, meant that the fruit was now available in greater quantities, at lower prices, and for longer stretches of time. Nevertheless, “Christmas oranges” still make their way into stockings, gift baskets and fruit bowls every holiday season.

Check out our Flickr album on Oranges!

Photograph of four boys in matching striped pyjamas hanging Christmas stockings on a fireplace mantle.

Young boys hanging up their stockings. Photo: Malak Karsh (e011177219)


Caitlin Webster is a senior archivist in the Reference Services Division at the Vancouver office of Library and Archives Canada.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.