The Christmas pickle is part of many holiday celebrations in American families. Traditionally, a Christmas ornament in the shape of a pickle is hidden somewhere on the tree. Whoever finds the special pickle ornament is said to have good fortune in the coming year. In some families, the pickle-finder even gets an additional present—or the privilege of choosing the first present to open.
Most of us believe that the Christmas pickle is an old-timey tradition that came to the United States from Germany. However, most of us are wrong! It turns out that the Christmas pickle tradition has absolutely no history in Germany. In fact, if you ask a German about the Christmas pickle, you will probably get nothing but a confused look. Pickles just have no place on the Germans’ Christmas trees.
So, where in the world did this myth come from?
The answer is far more commercial than historical. While the origins of the Christmas pickle are a bit murky, it seems that the first-known marketing came to us from the famous retailer Woolworths.
In the 1890s, the retail giant began exporting glass ornaments from Germany to their store locations across America. Ornaments from Germany soon became a staple on many Americans’ Christmas trees, and indeed, still are. When unusual glass ornament shapes like pickles caught on, this could have led to the country-wide misassumption that Christmas pickles are a German tradition.
But why exactly did Americans start to believe that Christmas pickles could bring good luck to the finder? Some people believe that the story has origins in the Civil War. Supposedly a man named Private John C. Lower, a Bavarian soldier who was fighting on the Union side, was captured by the Confederate Army. After spending a good deal of time in captivity and given few rations, Lower was starving. On Christmas Eve, he was so hungry that he begged his captor for anything to eat, even a pickle. His guard took pity on him, perhaps due to the Christmas spirit, and Lower was given the pickle.
Later, Lower says that the pickle saved his life and kept him from dying of starvation. When he returned back to his family, he told them the story. And every year after that, his family hid a pickle in the Christmas tree as a way to remember his suffering and the mercy which allowed him to live and return to them.
There is one last possible theory for the origin of the Christmas pickle. But, I must warn you, it is a bit graphic, so proceed with caution!
The story goes like this:
St. Nicholas was a bishop in the town of Myra in what is now Turkey. In that village, there lived an evil shopkeeper who hated children. One day, he kidnapped three small boys, and then cut them up in tiny pieces and put them into a pickle barrel. (See, I told you it was graphic.)
Hearing about this horror, St. Nicholas was so moved that he prayed to help the poor “pickled” boys. Because his faith was so pure and strong, it is said that God listened to his prayer, and when St. Nick opened the barrel… the three boys were found whole, alive and well.
The Christmas pickle tradition may have origins in this frightening, but ultimately happy, story as well. In fact, for many years, Godiva used to produce a large chocolate figure of St. Nicholas with three young boys and a pickle barrel at his feet.
Ultimately, it is hard to say exactly why Americans started putting Christmas pickles in our trees. As you can see, there are a few possibilities, and they range from the mystical to the commercial. All that matters is that it brings a smile and spark of holiday magic into our homes whenever we unwrap that pickle and hang it on the tree!