How Japan Made Christmas Mandarins a Canadian Tradition

How Japan Made Christmas Mandarins a Canadian Tradition

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Christmas mandarins
Picture: Shutterstock
A tradition popular in parts of Canada owes its roots to Japanese immigration. Now, some Japanese prefectures want to bring it back home.

In Japan, winter and mandarins go hand in hand. That’s also the case in (at least some parts of) Canada, where giving mandarins is an honored Christmas tradition. But did you know that Japan influenced this Canadian tradition?

Japan and Winter Mandarins

Woman under a kotatsu
Picture: Fast&Slow / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

As an American, when I think of citrus fruits, I tend to think “summer”. However, in Japan, people also strongly associate them with the winter. Eating mandarins while cuddled under a warm kotatsu (a traditional heated table covered in a comforter) is a vaunted Japanese Yuletime tradition. The words “kotatsu” and “mikan” in Japan go hand in hand.

Mandarin cultivation goes back several thousand years. Written records on cultivation in China go back about 4,200 years. Japan’s so-called satsuma mandarin (温州みかん; unshuu mikan). Records of mandarins in Japanese history go back as far as the country’s two most sacred recorded texts, the Kojiki and the Nihonshoki. About 400 years ago, mandarins from China’s Wenzhou (温州) region mutated into the treat that many know and love today[2].

Today, people enjoy Japanese mandarins, not just in Japan, but around the world. And mandarin growers are always looking for new markets. In November 2021, growers in Wakayama Prefecture, which produces the most mandarins in Japan, exported their product to Vietnam for the first time. Vietnam only recently lifted a ban on importing Japanese mandarins[8].

Mandarin’s Winter Benefits

Why the link between mandarins and winter? Well, first off, that’s when they’re seasonal. Japan’s mandarins typically ripen and are ready for harvest and consumption between November and January. In some areas rich in mandarins, harvesting is a time of celebration. At one high school in Ehime Prefecture, for example, students took the day off to pluck mandarins[3].

Beyond that, many people eat them for health reasons. People eat mandarins (which are packed with vitamin C and other healthy nutrients) to keep skin glowing, help with blood flow, and stave off colds in the winter.

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By the way, mandarins aren’t Japan’s only citrus-related winter custom. Bathing in a bath containing yuzu fruits is a modern Winter Solstice custom dating back to the country’s Edo era[4]. Heck, even Japan’s lovely capybara get treated to a nice winter bath in yuzu!

Spoon & Tamago on Twitter: “Ahead of the winter solstice tomorrow, the capybara of Nasu Oukoku Zoo took their annual yuzu hot bath pic.twitter.com/IeYTnCWr8K / Twitter”

Ahead of the winter solstice tomorrow, the capybara of Nasu Oukoku Zoo took their annual yuzu hot bath pic.twitter.com/IeYTnCWr8K

The Arrival of Japanese Mandarins in Vancouver

Where did this tradition come from? Japan! Or, at least, the mandarins did. Click To Tweet

In certain parts of Canada (primarily, it seems, the West), mandarins also have a warm spot in the hearts of its shivering citizens. Many families give mandarins out to kids and other family members. Givers usually stuff the sweet treat into the bottom of the receiver’s stocking.

(I should note that, based on a Twitter thread, it seems not everyone in Canada practices this custom. Some articles I saw said that this is largely a Western Canadian practice. Mind you, other Canadians marveled that other countries didn’t do this!)

Where did this tradition come from? Japan! Or, at least, the mandarins did.

As Scout Magazine relates, Canada began importing Japanese mandarins through the Port of Vancouver[5]. Canadians began importing them en masse after Japanese immigrants began receiving mandarins from home during the winter. A local importer sold the first mandarins in 1891 and the rest is history.

The arrival of the ships was a time for celebration. By 1929, Japan delivered some 22 million mandarins annually to Canada via Vancouver. By 1977, that number had shot up to 155 million.

But how did the mandarins end up in stockings? This is the result of Japanese produce intersecting with European custom. Legend has it that St. Nicholas would toss gifts of gold and other valuables into stockings hung by chimneys. Oranges symbolized the gold he gave. So Canadians used Japan’s millions of exported mandarins as a symbol of St. Nick’s generosity.

Mind you, the story isn’t all sunlight and oranges. More than a few Canadians, for example, referred to the imported satsuma with a racial slur (“J*p oranges”). As late as 1965, local Japanese immigrant community leaders were still demanding that people and local media outlets stop using the derogatory term.

Re-Importing a Canadian Tradition to Japan

One local company, Isseyen, is famous for its high-end bottled mandarin juice, which workers squeeze fresh, mandarin by mandarin. Click To Tweet

Japan has a number of rich Christmas traditions. Putting mandarins in stockings isn’t one of them. However, some Japanese cities that depend on mandarins for their revenue desperately want “Christmas mandarins” to become a thing.

I noted earlier that Ehime Prefecture is known for its mandarins. Indeed, the city of Yawatahama produces a ton of them. One local company, Isseyen, is famous for its high-end bottled mandarin juice, which workers squeeze fresh, mandarin by mandarin. A single sake-sized bottle will set you back 5000 yen (appr. USD $44)[6]!

Apparently, the $44 mandarin juice isn’t enough to move Yawatahama’s vast load of oranges. NHK reports that, in a bid to enhance consumption, local citizens and merchants assembled an object d’art made of 18,000 mandarins near a train station in the city.

The mound of mandarins, which stands three meters tall, is a yearly attraction. The committee behind the project hopes to make Canada’s tradition of giving Christmas mandarins a tradition in Japan as well. In the station, city denizens and visitors can buy special products, such as a Christmas cake made with mandarin marmalade.

Unfortunately for Yawatahama’s mandarin producers, people in Japan don’t seem to have adopted the practice en masse. I guess there’s still time for mandarin giving to become yet another vaunted Japanese Christmas tradition…

Japanese Christmas Traditions and How They’ve Evolved Over Time

Sources

[1] こたつ、みかん、猫はなぜセットなの?Mama no Gimon

[2] 全校みかん収穫 12アールの園地 多品種栽培. Ehime Shinbun

[3] みかんの歴史にふれてみます. kimura-e

[4] 柚子風呂ってなぜ冬至に入るの?効果や入り方&使った柚子の使い道も!Jalan.net

[5] How Mandarin Oranges Once Marked the Beginning of Vancouver’s Holiday Season. Scout Magazine

[6] 一生園のジュース. Isseyen

[7] 八幡浜 みかんでクリスマスを楽しむ催し. NHK News

[8] ベトナム向け温州みかん輸出出発式. Wakayama TV

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Jay Allen

Jay manages the technical writing practice for ercule, an SEO, content strategy and analytics firm. A lifelong geek, wordsmith, and language fanatic, he has level N1 certification in the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT).

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