As a youngster and into my teens, I remember a glass pickle ornament on our Christmas tree. It seemed a rather odd piece with all the pretty ones. Mom told us, “It’s a German tradition. After hanging all the ornaments, I try to hide the pickle way out of sight in the branches. The first youngster that finds it gets an extra surprise.”
It might have been a great German tradition, but I doubt any of us children even remembered getting an extra surprise. I know money was scarce on the farm with a large family. The only items I recall, in one of my stockings hung from the mantel, was an orange, candy, and some nuts.
After checking a number of web sites on the history of Christmas symbols — specifically a pickle — I found out the pickle tradition from Germany, to be a complete myth. Although many Christmas traditions did originate in Germany, such as the nutcracker, the Christmas Tree (The Tannenbaum), the Christmas pickle was not one of them.
In my research there were minor variations of the pickle tradition legend, but mainly the Christmas pickle (Die Weihnachtsgurke) was hidden in the tree branches and the first child to find the pickle ornament on Christmas morn received an extra gift from St. Nicholas (Sankt Nikolaus).
One of the reasons this legend is debunked is that St. Nicholas arrived on his feast day, December 6th, not Christmas morning. The 2nd reason is the gift giving (Die Bescherung) happened on Christmas Eve (Heiligabend), after attending a church service. Still, another fact, was that the German people themselves never heard of this tradition.
Still wondering how the pickle tradition got started? Here are two more legends from the U.S.
The first story comes from the family of Private Hans Lauer (John Lower), a Civil War veteran, in the 103rd Pennsylvania Infantry. Hans was born in Bavaria (now Germany) in 1842. The story goes that he was captured and sent to prison in Andersonville, Georgia by the Confederate Army. He was in poor health and starving, when on Christmas Eve he begged the guard for just one pickle before he died. The guard took pity on him and found a pickle. Miraculously, Hans felt the pickle gave him the strength and fortitude to get well. After being reunited with his family on Christmas Eve, he started the tradition of hiding a pickle on the tree and the person who found it would have a year of good luck.
Our second story is about two young Spanish schoolboys, who stopped overnight at an inn, on their way home for the holidays. The evil innkeeper imprisoned the boys in a pickle barrel. St. Nicholas, who was also staying at the inn, found and freed the boys with his magic staff. (This story is similar to a medieval tale about St. Nicholas rescuing three boys from a barrel of meat for pies — not pickles.)
This 2nd story is supposedly happened in Berrien Springs, Michigan, where they call itself The Christmas Capital of the World. In early December, the town holds their annual Christmas Pickle Festival with a parade. The “Dillmeister” passes out fresh pickles along the parade route. If you wish to buy some German pickle ornaments, there is a local museum or you can visit the shops around town.
For my last story, we’ll go back to the town of Lauscha, now in the German state of Thuringia. As early as 1597, the town was known for its glass-blowing (Glasblaserei), which produced drinking glasses and containers. By 1847, the company was producing glass, combined with molds, for Christmas ornaments (Glaschnuck) in the forms of hearts, stars, angels, fruits, nuts, and vegetables. Soon the glass ornaments were exported to other parts of Europe, England, and the U.S.
And guess where in the U.S. the first glass ornaments were sold? How about in our own Pennsylvania Dutch country of Lancaster? It seems to be Frank W. Woolworth, owner of Woolworth Department store chain, in Lancaster, in 1880. Although reluctant, Woolworth decided to order a case of 144 glass ornaments from Germany. After they sold in one day, he made sure he was stocked up for the next Christmas seasons.
According to “Learn Germany Coach — Made in Germany Gifts,” it has been proven that the first Christmas pickle ornament was made in Lauscha around 1900.
Hmmmmm! Was the Christmas pickle in with one of Woolworths’ orders by 1900s?
I’ll let it up to my readers to decide which pickle story they like best. As for me, a Dutchman myself, I much prefer that someone in Lancaster, in 1900s, bought a Christmas pickle at Woolworth’s store, hid it on the Christmas tree, and announced to family, “The first one to find the pickle has good luck for one year!”
If you have any friends, or family, who have not heard of this Christmas pickle tradition, why not buy them a Christmas pickle and attach the traditional poem:
The Christmas Pickle Poem
To start a tradition that will surely last,
Here’s the story about the pickle of glass.
The night before Christmas, it’s hung on the tree
While everyone’s sleeping, it’s done secretly.
And on Christmas morning, when you arise,
The first one to find it will get a surprise!
A family tradition for all to share,
You’ll look for the pickle year after year.