The mandarins are here! The mandarins are here!

As I broke into the skin and began to remove the peel, a bright citrus scent filled my nostrils. The peel was easily dispatched. I used my thumb to pry open the exposed fruit and removed the first segment.  I bit into the juicy, sweet flesh and I was instantly reminded of how perfectly delicious a moment could be.

I just ate my first Japanese Mandarin orange of the season and I couldn’t be happier… now the festive season can officially begin (none of this day-after-Halloween stuff!). Unlike the global, seemingly season-less, world of fresh food today (fresh raspberries in December?!), what makes these harbingers of the holidays so special is the fact that they only make an appearance once a year and that is something to be celebrated.

Easy to peel, no seeds, and super sweet… who can resist? Photo: C.Hagemoen

When I was younger my family would get multiple boxes over the winter season – it didn’t take us long to plow through a crate of oranges. I remember one particular rainy Saturday afternoon in the early 1970s when my sister and I almost ate a whole crate of them over the course of an afternoon. We were hanging out in the den (playroom/TV room) and we just kept making trip after trip to the laundry room where the wooden crate of mandarin oranges was stashed. I’m surprised we didn’t get ill, but who can resist those sweet easy-to-peel little gems? Apparently not many Canadians, as hundreds of millions of these seasonal oranges are consumed in this country each year. In fact, Canada is the largest market for Satsumas outside of Japan.

The Satsuma mandarin  or satsuma orange is of Chinese origin, but it was introduced to the West via Japan. Originally mandarin oranges were imported from Japan exclusively, that is why for many decades (especially before WW II) they were referred to as Japanese oranges or, in the days of casual racism, they were also called “Jap oranges”. In a letter to the editor in the December 13, 1965 edition of the Vancouver Sun, (Rev.) Tad Mitsui suprised that he was still hearing this expression (sometimes in the media) explained that using this “abbreviation”, no matter how innocently, was very offensive: “Innocence that lacks sensitivity offends other people. And it is not innocent any longer”.  Later, they became known as Japanese mandarin oranges, mandarin oranges, or just mandarins as imports from other countries, like China and South Korea, came onto the scene. In my family they were called Christmas oranges.

Typical rainy Vancouver November, 1963. Unloading of the first shipment for 1963. Photo: Province Newspaper, VPL 42222.

For the most part of the 20th Century, the arrival of the first shipment of Japanese Oranges in Vancouver unofficially marked the start of the holiday season. It was a much-heralded occasion. Sometime in the third week of November news would appear in the local media announcing the arrival of the first shipment of Japanese Oranges to the port of Vancouver, signalling that Christmas would soon be here. Customary images (like above and below) of longshoremen unloading ships on the waterfront and of women posing, peeled mandarins in hand, on crates of citrus cargo would appear in newspapers or on local television year after year.  I don’t recall when these news stories stopped, maybe sometime in the late 1980s, but I’m a little sad that this heraldic announcement no longer happens… not even a tweet!

Vancouver Sun images from 1948 and 1965.

Initially, ships delivered the oranges packed in wooden crates. These wooden crates were the second best part about Christmas oranges – they were easily transformed into step stools, tool boxes, doll beds, doll houses, and a myriad of other things. I remember painting a few of them as a child and using them to store my toys and treasures. In a 1933 edition of the Edmonton Journal  a “pioneer” offered thrifty instructions on how to turn a wooden Japanese orange crate into a “good-size footstool”. By the mid-1970s the wooden crates were replaced by the cardboard ones we still see today.

To protect and keep them fresh, each delicate orange was wrapped in coloured paper (the third best part). Predominately pale green tissue paper was (is) used, but I also recall that white and even pink paper was also used in the past. These coloured papers were attractive to me as a child as they could be used to fashion Barbie clothes and also used for crafts. During my newspaper research I found one instance where someone recalled using the mandarin wrapping papers as toilet paper for their outdoor convenience – a very thrifty use indeed!

The label end from an empty wooden crate of Japanese Mandarins. Photo: C. Hagemoen

Forget the “Polar Express”, in the late 1970s CP Rail launched the “Mandarin Orange Express”. Multiple brightly coloured rail cars traveled east across the country bringing these seasonal treats to the rest of Canada. Mandarin oranges are a mainly western Canadian passion. Mandarin oranges were (and still are) shipped east of Winnipeg, but they aren’t as popular in eastern Canada where the clementine is the traditional Christmas orange of choice.

But just how many oranges are we talking about? In 1929, ships delivered 22 million oranges to the port of Vancouver to be delivered to the rest of Canada over the festive season in 200 full-sized Canadian Pacific boxcars. In 1965, nine ships delivered 3,030,000 crates for distribution across Canada. 12 years later, 155 million mandarins were delivered via 4.7 million cardboard crates!

Two typical Canadians unloading a car of Mandarins from the CP “Mandarin Orange Express” in Ottawa in 1979. Photo: Ottawa Citizen

How did this tradition all start? According to the BC Food History blog, in the 1880s Japanese immigrants in British Columbia “began receiving baskets of Mandarin oranges from their families in Japan to celebrate the arrival of the [lunar] New Year”. It is speculated that they were shared with their neighbours and thus the seasonal obsession with these luscious little fruits began in British Columbia.

The earliest account I could find of Japanese oranges arriving in BC for the Christmas season was from the December 5, 1888 issue of the Nanaimo Daily News, announcing that they had arrived for sale at George Calvasky’s Fruit Store on Victoria Crescent in Nanaimo.

It is believed that the Oppenheimer Bros. and Company (founded 1858) were the first importers of Japanese Oranges to British Columbia for the general market. Still in operation today, as the Oppenhiemer Group, this fresh fruit and vegetable wholesaler was also responsible for introducing many other foreign fruits to BC, including Granny Smith apples and Kiwi fruit. According to their website, it was was in 1891 that the company sold their first Japanese mandarin oranges.  This date does not match up with the one from the Nanaimo Daily News, so perhaps the Oppenheimer Brothers weren’t the first importers, but they were certainly the largest. Nonetheless, we have been enjoying mandarin oranges in this part of the world for over 125 years.

With Canada and Japan on opposite sides during World War II, trade ties between the two countries were severed. There were no mandarins imported into Canada until 1948 when trade with Japan resumed and once again mandarins were found in the toes of Christmas stockings. I also discovered some newspaper accounts of Canadians who started boycotting Japanese Oranges as early as 1931. Some Chinese-Canadians boycotted the oranges from Japan in response to the 1931 Japanese invasion of Manchuria (an area in northeast China) and the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945).

The hold of a ship full of Japanese mandarin oranges. Photo: VPL 81110A

Is that a mandarin in the toe of your Christmas stocking? Or, are you just happy to see me?

In my family, like most families in who celebrated Christmas, the most important role the mandarin plays is as the anchor in the traditional X-mas stocking. Without fail, there was always a mandarin orange in the toe of our Christmas stockings. But, how did this tradition start? According to the website for the St. Nicholas Center (yes, there is such a thing), European immigrants brought many St. Nicholas holiday traditions to North America. An orange in the toe of a filled Christmas stocking is related to one of the legends of St. Nicholas’ deeds:

One story tells of a poor man with three daughters. In those days a young woman’s father had to offer prospective husbands something of value—a dowry. The larger the dowry, the better the chance that a young woman would find a good husband. Without a dowry, a woman was unlikely to marry. This poor man’s daughters, without dowries, were therefore destined to be sold into slavery. Mysteriously, on three different occasions, a bag of gold appeared in their home-providing the needed dowries. The bags of gold, tossed through an open window, are said to have landed in stockings or shoes left before the fire to dry. This led to the custom of children hanging stockings or putting out shoes, eagerly awaiting gifts from Saint Nicholas.

The gold of St. Nicholas was often shown as gold balls and often symbolized by oranges, therefore the orange in the toe of Christmas stocking is thought to be a reminder of St. Nicholas’ gift.

1970s advertising graphic for Mandarin oranges.

So, go out and enjoy a mandarin orange today and savour the fact that you now know a little bit more about their history.