How Mandarin Oranges Once Marked the Beginning of Vancouver’s Holiday Season

We all know that in the United States, American Thanksgiving officially marks the start of the winter holiday season. In BC, traditionally, it was the arrival of mandarin oranges in late November that hailed the start of the season. Unlike today’s global, seemingly season-less, world of fresh food, what made these harbingers of the holidays so special was the fact that they only made an appearance once a year, which was something to be celebrated.

Vancouver Sun, 1948.

In the 20th Century, the arrival of the first shipment of Japanese oranges to the Port of Vancouver officially marked the start of the holiday season. It was a much-heralded occasion. Sometime in the third week of November, local news media would announce the arrival of the first shipment of Japanese oranges to the port of Vancouver, signaling that Christmas would soon be here. Customary images of longshoremen unloading ships on the waterfront and/or women posing, peeled mandarins in hand, on crates of citrus cargo would appear in newspapers and on the local TV news year after year. I don’t recall when these news stories stopped, maybe by the 1990s, but I’m a little sad that this heraldic announcement no longer happens. I guess the fact that “easy to peel” oranges are now available year-round is mainly to blame.

Mandarin orange. Photo: C.Hagemoen.

When I was young my family would buy numerous 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 1970s when my sister and I consumed almost an entire crate of them over the course of an afternoon. We were hanging out in the den 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 was the largest market for Satsumas outside of Japan.

Citrus unshiu, 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 WW2) they were referred to as Japanese oranges or, in the days of rampant 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 surprised 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.

Newspaper ad, Vancouver Sun December 16, 1953.

Like many families in who celebrated Christmas, the most important role the mandarin plays is as the anchor in the traditional 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’ generosity in which his gifts of gold were tossed through a window landing in stockings or shoes set out by the fire to dry overnight. The gold of St. Nicholas was often shown as gold balls and often symbolized by oranges, therefore the orange in the toe of the Christmas stocking is thought to be a reminder of St. Nicholas’ gift.

But just how many mandarin oranges are we talking about? In 1929, ships delivered 22 million oranges through the Port of Vancouver, distributed to the rest of Canada in 200 full-sized Canadian Pacific boxcars over the festive season. In 1965, nine ships delivered 3,030,000 crates for distribution across Canada. 12 years later, in 1977, 155 million mandarins were delivered via 4.7 million cardboard crates!

(Left & Centre) Christmas mandarin oranges being unloaded from the ship, SS American Mail, December 7, 1949, (Right) Unloading Japanese oranges, November 25, 1963. Photos: VPL Special Collections, 81110A, 81000, 42222.

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 settler neighbours and thus the seasonal obsession with these luscious little fruits began in British Columbia.

The earliest account I could find of Japanese oranges in BC for the Christmas season was found in the December 5, 1888 edition 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 Oppenhiemer 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 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 are certainly the largest and the oldest. Nonetheless, we have been enjoying mandarin oranges in this part of the world for over 130 years.

Label from old Mandarin orange crate. Photo: C.Hagemoen.

Initially, ships delivered the oranges packed in wooden crates. These wooden crates were the second best part about mandarin oranges – they were easily transformed into step stools, toolboxes, doll beds, 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” shared 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 tissue paper (the third-best part). These wrappers were predominately pale green or white in colour, but other colours like pink were 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 mandarin 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!

Safeway ad for Japanese Mandarin Oranges, Vancouver Sun Nov. 30 1949.

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.

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

There are 5 comments

  1. We used to eagerly await the first “mandarin oranges” of the season too.

  2. It is now impossible to find Japanese Oranges in Vancouver for the last few years. There is only Chinese oranges now. Not as good.

  3. I loved reading this! I share so many of the same happy memories, the excitement when the Japanese mandarins arrived and how it marked the start of the Christmas season, the mandarin always in the toe of our stocking, how we would consume many crates over the holidays. I miss those wooden crates, I miss those days!

  4. Is it just me or has the quality of mandarins declined dramatically? Even the usually good japanese brands are regularly rotten or bitter. Is Canada no longer Japan’s top customer?

  5. What a beautiful article evokes so many memories of happy childhood Christmases, a fine piece of journalism should receive an award of excellence!

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