When my daughter was in high school, she dated a young man whose family had the tradition of the Christmas pickle. He was surprised we did not know anything about this tradition since our family had a German background and he insisted it was a German tradition. Since that time, I have heard of many others who involved a Christmas pickle in their holiday celebrations, and I have seen pickle ornaments for sale in many stores. So, I wanted to investigate this pickle phenomenon.
The tradition is that the pickle ornament is hidden on the Christmas tree and on Christmas Day, the first person to find it hanging on the branch is rewarded by getting to open the first present that morning. Sometimes the reward is an extra present. The idea is to slow down the rush of present-opening and allow the children to better appreciate the gifts. The surprising story behind your family’s favorite Christmas pickle ornament.
The roots of the tradition have been traced to a number of stories. No one seemed to use the pickle before the late 1800s. One story involves a Union soldier during the American Civil War. The Bavarian-born, Pvt. John C. Lower was being held prisoner in Andersonvilles, Georgia by the Confederate Army. He was starving and begged a guard to give him a pickle. The soldier regained his strength from the nourishment of the pickle. He credited God and the pickle for his survival and when he returned home started the pickle tradition. When found, the pickle would grant the finder success and good fortune for the year to come. The True Story Behind the Christmas Pickle Tradition. In another source, the same John C Lower is said to have been in the 103rd Pennsylvania infantry and was captured in April 1863 and taken to Camp Sumter.Civil War Era Christmas Traditions- The Pickle | Ladies Tea – War from a Feminine Perspective (civilwartalk.com) This same site is a discussion about the Civil War origin story if you want to follow that.
The second story springs from a medieval tale about St. Nicholas and two Spanish boys. The two lads were returning home from boarding school when they stayed at an inn for the nights. The evil innkeeper killed them and placed them in a pickle barrel. St. Nicholas found the boys and brought them back to life. Another version has the barrels full of meat for pies, however. The True Story Behind the Christmas Pickle Tradition When looking for illustrations, all the pictures show St. Nicholas raised three boys from the dead.
The most likely story emerges after the mass production of German-made glass ornaments arrived in F. W. Woolworths in the late 1800s. Some of them were in the shape of fruits and vegetables. Since Germans purportedly love all things pickled, it is possible the company had an increased supply of pickles and created the story to increase sales. Since the ornaments were from Germany, it would be easy to make the tale a German one.
The American town that has proudly carried the pickle tradition the furthest would be Berrien Springs, Michigan. Known as the Pickle Capital of the World, they held their Christmas pickle festival from 1995 into the 2010s. This included a parade, a pickle pageant, pickle-tossing competitions, and a pickle eating-contest. This prompted the sale of many pickle ornaments. The History of the Christmas Pickle, a Zany Holiday Tradition The town site image below says they re-ignited the celebration as a 4th of July event in 1016. However, another American town also touts the title of Pickle Capital of the World, St. Charles, IL. Interestingly there is no history of pickles being manufactured, packed or cucumbers grown in St. Charles! St. Charles the Pickle Capital of the World… Who knew? — St. Charles History Museum (stcmuseum.org)
If you want to trace the pickle tradition back to Germany, you will find few Germans know anything about it. A YouGov survey found only 7% of Germans have ever heard of the tradition, know as Weihnachtsgurke and only 2-6% of Germans with children have ever practiced the tradition. However, in the 1980s, the Old World Christmas shop started selling the glass pickle ornaments made in Lausch, Germany and it has been their best-seller for the past 37 years. They sold more than 25,000 in 2017 and a take about the pickle is printed on the packaging. The True Story Behind the Christmas Pickle Tradition – Jacobs Christmas A spokesperson for the company admits that the founder Tim Merck wrote the company’s version of the pickle tradition himself. It is unknown where her heard the tale of if he concocted an entirely new tale. Whether he heard it in Germany or if it was an entirely new tale he concocted. The surprising story behind your family’s favorite Christmas pickle ornament
There is one last possibility for the pickle origin story. German-born Silke-Maria Weineck, a professor of German Studies and Comparative Literature at the University of Michigan said the tale does not really sound like a German Christmas tradition to her. “German Christmas traditions are pretty solemn.” Although most Germans do not know about it, it is possible that hiding the pickle could have been popular in just one region of Germany. “It could have been one immigrant family’s tradition, for all we know. I could imagine that we were originally dealing with an actual pickle for the holidays. Americans are notoriously quick to claim something is ‘a tradition’.” The surprising story behind your family’s favorite Christmas pickle ornament So, whether you have children searching your tree for a pickle or not, have fun with whatever traditions you have created for your family this year.