Citrus season is almost upon us – I can feel the chill set in as I sit at my keyboard. As the season gets colder and colder, those of us in the northern US begin dreaming about sunshine and summery flavors. On a bitter cold day when the sky is cloudy grey and it feels like summertime is a lifetime away, peeling an orange and letting the smell of citrus oil waft up to your nose can feel like a five minute vacation to a warmer climate. Close your eyes and breathe in the smell of an orange and you can almost convince yourself that you are standing in an orange grove in Florida.
It may seem counter-intuitive, since lemonade is such a classic treat on a hot summer day, but citrus season runs during the winter months. Oranges, lemons, limes, grapefruits, and some heirloom varieties and hybrids are at their freshest and tastiest from December until late March. If you want to get your fill of specialty citrus fruits, like Meyer lemons or blood oranges, winter is the time to be on the lookout at your local grocery store (or farmer’s market if you live in communities far enough south to be close to citrus farmers). Depending on where you shop, you can most likely find oranges and lemons and limes year-round, but the navel orange you peel for a snack in July will not be nearly as juicy or sweet as the orange you find in January. The citrus fruit available in summer has either been in cold storage since winter harvest, or has been trucked or shipped in from orchards on the other side of the world. Picking up a crate of clementine oranges in winter means you are eating fruit that has been harvested more recently, and did not have to travel as far to reach you.
Because citrus fruits are at their tastiest during the winter, they have been given as gifts or used in holiday cooking and baking traditions for years. Some people, like my neighbors, dehydrate orange slices and then use them for decorating around the house, so the sweet orange smell can make their home feel more festive and bright. Lots of holiday recipes use citrus juice or peels, whether it’s lemon juice in a powdered sugar icing, or orange peels in a bowl of punch, to spice up sweet and savory dishes alike.
So how did citrus fruits become a part of so many different holiday traditions?
In the years before shipping made getting citrus fruits to northern markets easier, buying oranges and lemons were not only more expensive, but also highly seasonal. Trying to find lemons in July was a lot harder without shipping and refrigeration technologies. Because these fruits were more expensive and difficult to find out of season, they were more highly valued, and giving them as gifts became a way of demonstrating how much someone meant to you. This meaning has lasted through the years, through the Great Depression in the United States to present day. Even though shipping has made oranges and lemons more affordable, they are still a memorable gift for friends and family. A sweet reason behind the tradition, as explained by The Kitchn
, comes from the segments in the fruit itself: an orange’s segments are already divided and ready to share when you pull back the peel.
For people celebrating Christmas, they might practice the tradition of giving oranges in Christmas stockings, which is a legacy of the St. Nicholas “Santa Claus” story. According to the story, St. Nicholas gave small gifts of gold, which are often memorialized as small round balls of gold. Because his gifts were round-shaped, the round oranges are meant to evoke the memory of those gifts. Mandarin oranges, as well as satsumas and tangerines, are a traditional gift for Chinese New Year symbolizing good fortune and abundance. In Russian New Year’s celebrations, boxes and plates of oranges are special treats as well as popular decorations around the home. Some Winter Solstice celebrations use citrus fruits to symbolize the sun and the promise of longer days and shorter nights to come.
One of my favorite traditions during citrus season is a quiet way to wind down after a long, busy day. I slice a lemon and place three or four slices in my favorite mug and then add hot water and a spoonful of honey. After a few minutes, my hot “lemonade” is ready to sip after dinner. If I can find Meyer lemons or blood oranges at my local store
, I will use those as a tasty seasonal treat.
Get your fill of delicious citrus flavors with this recipe for baked oranges! And if you want to make the most of citrus season, try this activity for dried citrus slices that you can decorate your home with!