For several generations of Russians, few things signal Christmas and New Year’s better than tangerines (or, rather, Mandarin oranges or simply “mandarins,” as they are known here). Although this citrus fruit has been sold in Russia since the nineteenth century, and the cultivation of tangerines in the subtropical climate of Georgia and Abkhazia began in the 1930s, their connection to the festive table wasn’t cemented until the 1960s, when, in addition to the fruit that was grown on the Black Sea coast, the Soviet Union began to receive regular deliveries from Morocco and Israel.
Mandarins were an inalienable part of any gift basket that parents would bring home for their children; they were used as decorations on New Year’s trees, along with walnuts (usually wrapped in silver foil); and they were found on any festive table when families and friends gathered to say farewell to the outgoing year and ring in the new one with Soviet champagne. Joseph Brodsky described the spirit of the winter holidays as “the smell of vodka, fir-needles and cod, mandarins, cinnamon and apples.”
Back then, mandarins were basically one of two types of fruit available to most Soviet citizens during winter, the other being apples that would survive the winter individually-wrapped in newspaper and stored in a cool place. Today, even with the plethora of fresh fruit and berries available here year round, the heady aroma of mandarins is still enough to put almost anyone in the spirit for the holidays.
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Russian Life is a publication of a 30-year-young, award-winning publishing house that creates a bimonthly magazine, books, maps, and other products for Russophiles the world over.
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