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Michael Rielly
Michael Rielly

The Christmas Pickle Mystery

For many, decorating the Christmas Tree with a pickle ornament is a beloved holiday tradition; however the origin of the Christmas Pickle remains somewhat of a mystery.

Details vary, but the most common explanation is that the Christmas Pickle or Die Weihnachtsgurke is a centuries old German tradition where the last decoration hung on the Christmas Tree was an ornamental pickle; hidden deep within the branches of the Tannenbaum. And the first person to find the briny bauble on Christmas morning would receive an extra gift from St. Nicholas or be blesses with good fortune the coming year.

The Bronner's CHRISTmas Wonderland website offers several varieties of Pickle ornaments and includes this explanation of the legend:

“According to German tradition, the pickle brings good luck. After all the other ornaments were hung on the tree, the pickle ornament was hidden somewhere within the branches. On Christmas morning, the first child to find the gherkin was rewarded with an additional small present left by St. Nicholas."

Unfortunately, there are a couple of holes in the story. Firstly, in Germany, Saint Nicholas arrives not on Christmas Day, but rather on the day of his feast, December 6, Saint Nicholas Day (Sankt Nikolaus Tag). Second, in Germany, gifts are usually opened on Christmas Eve (Heiliger Abend), not Christmas Day morning.  Of course there is also the fact that most Germans have never heard of the tradition; and those that have, believe it to be an American tradition.

So if most Germans have never heard of this tradition, then how did it get started? There are at least two Christmas pickle ornament stories floating in the Internet brine of speculation.

The first story takes place during the American Civil War. As the story goes, Bavarian-born soldier, Private John Lower (Hans Lauer) of the 103rd Pennsylvania Infantry was captured in Georgia by the Confederate Army and taken prisoner. On Christmas Eve, Private Lower, starving and in poor health, begged the prison guard for just one pickle. The guard took pity on Lower and granted his request. The pickle gave Lower the strength to live on. Once reunited with his family, Lower began a tradition of hanging a pickle on the Christmas tree every Christmas Eve.

The second story, recounts a tale of two boys trapped in a pickle barrel. There are several variations of the pickle barrel story; however, they mostly center around two Spanish schoolboys who are kidnapped by an evil innkeeper and placed into a pickle barrel. That evening, Nicholas, the Bishop of Myra (St. Nicholas) arrives and rescues the children.

It’s probably no coincidence that this story sounds very similar to the legend of St. Nicholas and the three children in a barrel. As the story goes, a malicious butcher lures three children into his shop where he kills them and places their remains in a barrel of brine to cure, planning to sell them off as ham. Nicholas finds the children and resurrects them through prayer. This legend accounts for St. Nicholas as the patron saint of children and barrel makers and why the saint is often depicted in statues and paintings alongside three children in a barrel.  

Despite evidence showing that the Christmas Pickle tradition likely did not originate in Germany, there is however a connection to Deutschland. Both Christmas trees and Christmas ornaments originate from Germany. The small mountain village of Lauscha is considered to be the birthplace of the glass-blown Christmas ornament. In 1847, Hans Greiner began producing the first glass ornaments in the shapes of fruits and nuts. Soon after, the glass blowers of Lauscha were manufacturing ornaments in other shapes such as hearts, stars, and angels. By the 1870s, Christmas ornaments were being exported throughout Europe.

But it wasn’t until the 1880s that glass ornaments became a regular fixture on Christmas trees in the United States. In 1880, a traveling salesman called on 28-year old Frank W. Woolworth at his store in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. The salesman wanted to sell German glass ornaments to people for decorating their homes at Christmas. Woolworth was unconvinced of their appeal. He felt that Americans would not waste money on them because they didn't 'do' anything. Reluctantly, Woolworth purchased one case of 144 ornaments, but insisted on sale-or-return terms.

Much to his surprise the ornaments sold out in one day, generating a profit of $4.32. The following year Woolworth doubled his order and sold out again. It seemed Americans loved the idea of decorating their Christmas trees with these unique glass ornaments.

Regardless of its origins, the tradition of the Christmas Pickle survives and adds a layer of whimsy to the joy and merriment of the holiday season. And for many, no Christmas Tree is complete without it.

Edited by Michael Rielly

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