Christmas Eve Manvotional: The Night of Oranges

by Brett & Kate McKay on December 23, 2008 · 18 comments

in A Man's Life, Manvotionals


This following essay appeared in the New York Times in 1995. As a young man, I remember it making a deep impression on me for reasons I couldn’t then quite articulate, and I cut it out and have saved it ever since. To a time in which the holidays have often become overly-commercialized and stripped of genuine feeling, this story provides a poignant antidote and needed perspective. Written by Flavius Stan, who was then a 17 year old exchange student from Romania living in NYC, it teaches about sacrifice, love for one’s family, and being grateful for what you have.

The Night of Oranges

By Flavius Stan

It is Christmas Eve in 1989 in Timisoara and the ice is still dirty from the boots of the Romanian revolution. The dictator Nicolae Ceausescu had been deposed a few days before, and on Christmas Day he would be executed by firing squad. I am in the center of the city with my friends, empty now of the crowds that prayed outside the cathedral during the worst of the fighting. My friends and I still hear shots here and there. Our cold hands are gray like the sky above us, and we want to see a movie.

There is a rumor that there will be oranges for sale tonight. Hundreds of people are already waiting in line. We were used to such lines under the former Communist Government-lines for bread, lines for meat, lines for everything. Families would wait much of the day for rationed items. As children, we would take turns for an hour or more, holding our family’s place in line.

But this line is different. There are children in Romania who don’t know what an orange looks like. It is a special treat. Having the chance to eat a single orange will keep a child happy for a week. It will also make him a hero in the eyes of his friends. For the first time, someone is selling oranges by the kilo.

Suddenly I want to do something important: I want to give my brother a big surprise. He is only eight years old, and I want him to celebrate Christmas with lots of oranges at the table. I also want my parents to be proud of me.

So I call home and tell my parents that I’m going to be late. I forget about going to the movie, leave my friends, and join the line.

People aren’t silent, upset, frustrated, as they were before the revolution; they are talking to one another about life, politics, and the new situation in the country.

The oranges are sold out of the back doorway of a food shop. The clerk has gone from anonymity to unexpected importance. As he handles the oranges, he acts like a movie star in front of his fans.

He moves his arms in an exaggerated manner as he tells the other workers where to go and what to do. All I can do is stare at the stack of cardboard boxes, piled higher than me. I have never seen so many oranges in my life.

Finally, it is my turn. It is 8 o’clock, and I have been waiting for six hours. It doesn’t seem like a long time because my mind has been flying from the oranges in front of me to my brother and then back to the oranges. I hand over the money I was going to spend on the movie and watch each orange being thrown into my bag. I try to count them, but I lose their number.

I am drunk with the idea of oranges. I put the bag inside my coat as if I want to absorb their warmth. They aren’t heavy at all, and I feel that this is going to be the best Christmas of my life. I begin thinking of how I am going to present my gift.

I get home and my father opens the door. He is amazed when he sees the oranges, and we decide to hide them until dinner. At dessert that night, I give my brother the present. Everyone is silent. They can’t believe it.

My brother doesn’t touch them. He is afraid even to look at them. Maybe they aren’t real. Maybe they are an illusion, like everything else these days. We have to tell him he can eat them before he has the courage to touch one of the oranges.

I stare at my brother eating the oranges. They are my oranges. My parents are proud of me.

{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

1 C_Hearn December 23, 2008 at 11:07 pm

Beautiful. I went to Romania a few years ago and stopped in at Timisoara. We headed to a small market in the center of town and walked around for awhile. Romanians are some of the most generous and kind people I have ever met. I know it has been over a decade since their liberation, but they still work hard just to provide for their family. This post could have been written about this year and still been applicable. Thank you for this post. It connected me for a moment back to that experience and brought hope to my heart.

2 Bob Iger December 24, 2008 at 12:20 am

Very touching… I remember being a kid and seeing this revolution unfold on the news. Thank you for this post.

3 Rick December 24, 2008 at 7:16 am

Does anybody know where the tradition of tangerines in the bottom of your stocking comes from?

4 NZR (the Plainsman) December 24, 2008 at 7:39 am

It has been hard to explain why I eat so many oranges this time of year. To my wife it is more-or-less “tradition” with me, to others a ravenous winter fetish.
But oranges around the holidays were a special treat for my grandparents, who immigrated to the USA from Romania’s neighbor, Hungary. When they came to the US and started a family (which eventually included me) similar stories about Christmas were passed down from the “Old Country”.

This was good for my spirit this morning. Thanks for posting this!

The Plainsman.

5 Jsthegr8 December 24, 2008 at 11:14 am

This story is very warm

6 Ced December 24, 2008 at 1:31 pm

i remember traveling to the old soviet union back in 1987, and there were lines for everything. made me appreciate what i had back home and for my freedoms. i hope these newly freed people dont forget what they had to go thru for their new found freedoms, and i wish that we as Americans would remember to appreciate what we have here and dont abuse it so.
Merry Christmas and God Bless

7 Kari December 24, 2008 at 2:52 pm

I hope it’s not unmanly to shed a few tears at the beauty and poignancy of this story.

…of course I’m not a man so I guess that doesn’t matter.

Happy Christmas, and thank you.

8 Noel December 24, 2008 at 6:59 pm

Cool story. So simple, yet so incredibly poignant. Merry Christmas toe everyone out there tonight.

9 Tom December 24, 2008 at 11:57 pm

Thank you.

10 Kenton Sorenson December 25, 2008 at 2:26 pm

Great article! I and a friend visited Timisoara exactly one year after this story took place, and I can testify to the warmth of the Romanian people in the midst of poverty. We gave oranges to the border guards and they treated them like gold, even though I didn’t know why at the time.

But what impressed me more than anything on that trip was that people are the same wherever you go. We all have the same hopes and dreams, and even the same sense of humor once we get past the cultural differences. I met a young man who had a bullet hole in his coat (the bullet missed his body miraculously) from the night of the overthrow of the dictator.

He was quite manly in my view.

11 Dan December 25, 2008 at 5:41 pm

I don’t remember this essay, but thank you for sharing it. I do remember the date. My father escaped from Romania in 1968, at the beginning of the Ceacescu regime. Even though we didn’t celebrate Christmas, we certainly did in 1989. This brought back memories of that time as well as expressed what this season should really be about, no matter what one’s religion is.

12 Alexandru December 28, 2008 at 3:43 am

Thank you. We, romanians, still eat a lot of oranges around Christmas time but it was something totally different back then.

13 DaveStPaul January 7, 2009 at 5:59 am

I cannot find this article on the NYTimes’ site. Their searches go back to 1851. Are you sure it’s from the Times?

14 Rob Britton December 24, 2009 at 9:48 am

I was so moved by this essay when it first appeared almost 15 years ago that I tracked down the young author. We met a year later, and Flavius Stan and I have been friends since. I attended his wedding in New York in May 2003. I read the essay on Christmas Eve each year. Flavius now lives in Italy, with his (Italian) wife and young daughter. He has not lost his giving spirit.

15 Marty G December 25, 2009 at 6:50 am

Beautiful story, Merry Christmas.

16 Tony Versandi December 25, 2009 at 1:46 pm

Wonderful story! Thanks for posting…Merry Christmas everyone!

17 Charles DeNault February 7, 2010 at 11:58 pm

I read this story every few months to help keep me grounded. It helps me see past the absurdities of our materialistic society that I often embrace and warms me up a little every team I read it.

18 Mark December 25, 2013 at 3:20 pm

I was in Romania 2 years after the revolution, and spent time in Timisoara. One of the professors I was working under showed me the room he was sitting in when ‘it all began’. The students whose protest (and subsequent shooting) sparked the revolution was right outside his window. He showed me the bullet holes in the outer wall.

I was walking with a Romanian friend once and two other people were walking toward us and she fell silent until they had passed. I asked her if she didn’t like them and she laughed and said “That is the old Romania still in my mind. If there are four of you, one is a spy so you don’t talk.” She told me about life before the revolution. Insanity. She also said that the revolution was ‘dumbfounding even for us while we were doing it. When the dictator was shot we just stood around, saying ‘how could this happen, did we really do that? What do we do now?’

Also I once unknowingly defied the securitate (Unsure of the spelling there) by blowing off a guy who was making people line up outside a bank I wanted to exchange money in. He didn’t work for the bank and said he wasn’t a police officer so I just went into the bank. The teller freaked out and told me to go out a side door, which I did. Many days later I mentioned this to my Romanian friend and she turned a little white and told me to avoid the downtown for a while. Ah, ignorance.

Also also (as long as I’m going on) the evangelists in the town square were apparently ‘great for kids, we can just leave them here to watch the crazy religion people all day’. There were Hare Krishnas bumping elbows with Revivalist Baptists every weekend. My favourite was the baptist guy. He had no translator but man did he get fervent. People I talked to in the square that day couldn’t believe this guy. A few thought maybe he was a madman. I told them they were right.

Your story explains why my Romanian friend (nameless because it’s not my place to tell her story) loved it when I casually gave her an orange.

I’ll stop now.

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