Kristin G., while standing in front of my fifth-grade class, opened up a box filled with cotton, and pulled out a Christmas ornament. “This is my family’s Christmas pickle ornament,” she said. “It’s really old, and it’s an ancient German tradition to hide it on the Christmas tree. If you find it first, you get good luck. This year, it’s my year to hide it.”
I remember this innocuous little anecdote 20 years later because, at the exact moment she said “hide it,” the ornament slipped out of her hand, hit the desk, and exploded into a million pieces. There was a moment of perfect silence, and then Jesse S. burst into uncontrollable laughter. Mrs. Fridman screamed “JESSE!” and dragged him by the arm out of the room while Kristin stood rigid in shock. We could hear Mrs. Fridman in the hall shouting at Jesse, who was still in hysterics, “YOU’RE LAUGHING AT HER? SHE JUST DESTROYED HER FAMILY TRADITION!” Jesse laughed harder, gasping, “I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” and Kristin began to sob. We all sat there, mouths agape, paralyzed with horror and joy, wondering if this meant we wouldn’t have to do our presentations.
I went home and asked my mother why I, a kid from a German family, brought in Swedish meatballs instead of a Christmas pickle.
The fuzzy history of the Christmas pickle
A lot of German-American families have Christmas pickles (my parents had never heard of them, but they went out and bought one for us the next year), and the tradition varies, but it usually looks like the one that Kristin described: St. Nick (or someone in the family) hides the pickle on Christmas Eve, and the first to find it either gets an extra present, the right to open the first present, or good luck for a year. The tradition is known as Weihnachtsgurke, which literally translates to “Christmas Eve Cucumber.”
There are a few origin stories, too: one claims that two Spanish children were murdered by an innkeeper, who then hid their bodies in a pickle barrel. St. Nick came along, tapped on the barrel with his cane, and the kids miraculously came back to life. (This story has been pushed, in particular, by a town called Berrien Springs, which is in the cucumber-producing southwest region of Michigan. From 1992 to 2003, Berrien Springs held an annual “Christmas Pickle Parade,” led by a Grand Dillmeister and finished with a Santa Claus who hands out fresh pickles instead of candy or presents).
Another claims that a German immigrant and soldier in the United States was being held by the Confederates as a prisoner of war in the Andersonville camp. He was near death, and asked one of the guards to take pity on him, and give him a pickle. The guard was moved, gave him a pickle, and the man made a miraculous recovery.
There’s a teeny little problem with all of these stories, though: no one in Germany seems to have ever heard of them. Or, if they have, they’ve heard about them from Americans. The traditions don’t even really match up – Germans don’t open their gifts on Christmas morning, they do this on Christmas eve. And in Germany, St. Nick comes much earlier in the month, so the pickle would have been long found by the time Weihnacht rolled around. It doesn’t appear that in Germany there is such a thing as the German Christmas Pickle at all. So where did it come from?
The Big Business of selling pickle ornaments
The best anyone can guess, Weihnachtgurke was invented by a big corporation to sell more pickle ornaments. Woolworth’s, the great five-and-dime store, started importing German-made glass-blown Christmas ornaments into the United States in the 1880s. Many of the ornaments took the shape of fruits and vegetables, and among them were pickles. There is no sign that the pickles held any special importance to the German ornament-makers, though, and it is possible that pickles simply didn’t sell as well as other ornaments, on account of their color being roughly the same as that of an evergreen Christmas tree, and thus, hard to spot when hanging on a tree.
The specifics are lost to history, but what seems to have happened is that someone, possibly at Woolworth’s, saw the surplus of pickle ornaments, saw that they were being shipped in from Germany, and tied this somehow to the creepy “hide the pickle” double entendre. So they attached to the pickles a card explaining this “ancient German tradition,” and the legend, for whatever reason, took off. ( Pickle Ornaments today still have these cards attached, explaining the “German tradition”). German families who were maybe a few generations disconnected from their homeland saw the pickles, thought it was a nice way to tie their heritage into their Christmas celebrations, and bought one for their tree. Their popularity in the United States has, somewhat ironically, led to their increased sales back in Germany and Europe.
Some German-Americans, of course, will be a bit disillusioned to hear that their ancient homeland tradition was actually a marketing scheme invented in the midst of an 1880s pickle surplus. To them, I will say what Mrs. Fridman said to us the day after show and tell: “What matters about a tradition is not the actual object, whether it’s an ornament, a food, or a song. It’s the people who participate in the tradition and give it life. And just so you all know, Kristin’s mom went out last night and bought a new pickle. It turns out they’re for sale pretty much everywhere.”