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That German Pickle Ornament Tradition…

Green Pickle Christmas Tree Ornament

I’d seen them in Christmas catalogs years ago. They caught my eye in pop-up Christmas shops. I’d even come across them occasionally on friends’ trees.

The Pickle Ornament. A green gherkin, made of glass, suspended somewhere in you Christmas tree. First to find it on Christmas morning enjoyed good luck for the coming year and received a special treat from Santa. A German tradition. That’s what I’d heard for the last 30 or so years.

Dave’s grandparents were from Germany. I think I remember his sister and niece having pickle ornaments. But I’m not German. So I was pretty emphatic when I said a glass pickle would end up on our Christmas tree only if it actually came from Germany. And there ended the German pickle ornament conversation. Honestly, it seemed pretty low on everyone’s priority list.

So What Happens in Wittenberg?

I pop into a Christmas shop to look at those cool German Christmas scenes that spin when you light candles under fan blades. And I end up choosing a Nativity instead (it spoke to me,honest!). As I’m heading over to the cashier, one of my companion laughs, and I look over.

A Whole Wall of Pickle Ornaments!

Well, not one to go back on my word, I bought a glass pickle ornament for 4.00 €. Here it is:

It even came with a copy of the legend or tradition or story – in German, of course. Score!

It Was in German, So…

I whipped out my handy translation app, and here’s what it spit out:

The Christmas cucumber, the Christmas Pickle

“This seemingly American custom probably comes from the Lauscha region of Thuringia. Others, however, claim that the custom comes from Bavaria.

In any case, this glass cucumber emigrated to America around 1880 and has since been hidden in American Christmas trees at Christmas.

Whoever finds this cucumber first at the present may be the first to unwrap his gift or receive an additional gift. This custom, which has been largely forgotten in our country, is now coming back from America.”

Wait. What?

In Germany they’re calling this an American tradition?! You know me, I can’t leave something like this alone.

So I did a bit of research and it turns out there are several possibilities:

  1. The pickle in the tree tradition began in Bavaria and was brought to the US by German immigrants.
  2. The gherkin in the evergreen actually originated in in the Lauscha region of Thuringia, also brought to America by German immigrants.
  3. A fighter in the American Civil War who was born in Bavaria was imprisoned by the other side. Starving, he begged a guard for one last pickle before he died. The guard took pity on him because it was Christmas day, and gave a pickle to him. The pickle gave him the mental and physical strength to live on. He began the tradition with his own family when he got home.
  4. Another story comes from Christmas Pickle Capital of the World, Berrien Springs, Michigan. The story here is that two Spanish children were trapped in a pickle barrel. Saint Nicholas rescued the boys and we disregard their trauma by honoring the event annually with a glass pickle hung on our Christmas trees.
  5. OR… the story started as a marketing ploy to sell German glass ornaments to Americans…

In the 1840s, German artisans at the Lauscha Glass Center made ornaments shaped like fruit and nuts. These became quite popular in America in the 1880s, when five-and-dime store giant F. W. Woolworth Co. started importing them to sell and perhaps concocted a story of its origin. The pickle ornaments may have been slow to leave the shelves, until they were packaged with a card telling the story of the German tradition.

If that’s the case, it wouldn’t be the first Christmas tradition that started with marketing. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (maybe you’ve heard of him, he saved Santa’s sleigh) originated as an advertising campaign by now-defunct department store Montgomery Ward. And the chubby jolly Santa Claus we know today bears little resemblance to Saint Nicholas or Sïnter Klaus, Papa Noël or Weihnachtsmann, Ded Moroz, Noel Baba or Father Christmas.

Instead, in 1931, Coca-Cola commissioned illustrator Haddon Sundblom to paint Santa for Christmas advertisements. Those paintings established Santa as a warm, happy character with human features, including rosy cheeks, a white beard, twinkling eyes and laugh lines.Sundblom drew inspiration from an 1822 poem by Clement Moore called “A Visit from St. Nicholas” —commonly known as “Twas the Night Before Christmas.”

So, a brief dive into secular Christmas tradition.The result is that a lurid green pickle ornament is going back to the States with me. Perhaps it’ll end up on our tree. And we can choose to consider whichever tradition we like.

In the end, the diversion of secular traditions will, as it is each year at this time, be eclipsed by our celebration of the arrival of God’s Word incarnate, a little baby boy. Thanks be to God.





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