Have you ever seen a pickle ornament at the store or on a Christmas tree and wondered why they seem so much more popular than, say, an apple ornament, a bacon ornament, or any other more prevalent or beloved food item? These pickle ornaments, it turns out, represent a tradition with a somewhat mysterious and disputed origin!
Just type “pickle ornament” into your favorite search engine or online shopping site, and you’re likely to be met with a plethora of pickle paraphernalia – ranging from the ornaments themselves to t-shirts celebrating the tradition. These products usually come with a brief description of the tradition, explaining that it’s an old German custom to hide a pickle ornament in the tree on Christmas Eve, and then on Christmas morning, the first child to spot the pickle gets to open the first present, or (as noted in other ornament packaging) a special extra present from St. Nicholas.
The problem with this “German” tradition, however, is that Germans don’t know about it! In November 2016, YouGov polled over 2,000 Germans, and found 91 percent of them had never heard of the Weihnachtsgurke, or the Christmas Pickle, tradition. What’s more, German Christmas customs don’t line up with the pickle present timing. In Germany St. Nick comes on December 6th, and German children open gifts on Christmas Eve and not Christmas morning. So if it’s not really a German tradition, where did it actually come from?
One version of the story calls it a southern U.S. tradition, stemming from the Civil War. The tale goes that a German-born Private of the Union Army, John C. Lower, was captured by the Confederate Army and sent to a prison camp in Andersonville, Georgia. Faring very poorly, he asked a guard for one final wish: a pickle. The guard agreed, and Private Lower got his pickle and bounced back to health – what a superfood! Attributing his good fortune to that pickle, he began the pickle ornament tradition with his family back in Pennsylvania, where it spread to Virginia and the South.
Another, more sordid, take on the origin of the tradition is rooted with Saint Nicholas, himself. Sometime after 280 AD, three boys sought food and shelter from a butcher, but instead of helping them, he chopped them up and put them in a pickling barrel (rude!). Seven years later, Saint Nicholas came strolling along, realized what had happened, and miraculously brought the boys back to life. This gruesome tale translates to the cutesy tradition of St. Nicholas having an extra present for whoever finds the hidden pickle ornament. Aw!
A final theory for this (possibly) Midwestern U.S. tradition is that an American salesman just made the whole thing up to offload a surplus of pickle ornaments. What makes this theory more interesting, is that, according to the New York Times, a representative from a famed glass ornament region of Germany only found out about the tradition in the 1990s, during a visit to Michigan. Sascha Muller brought the story back to the Lauscha glass center in eastern Germany, and they now make 50,000 pickle ornaments each year to handle the new demand of this not-so-German tradition.
Whether it stemmed from a dying soldier’s wish, St. Nick resurrecting pickled children, or a good old-fashioned American marketing scheme, there’s no shortage of Christmas pickle ornaments to help you win that bonus present. As for me, I’d like to think we still haven’t found the true origin, likely some secret hidden German village, still undiscovered, still laughing as the world tries to figure out their pickle ornament tradition. Someday we’ll find you, Gurkedorf!
Related Video: How to Make Blue Gatorade Pickles
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