If you’ve never heard of a Christmas Pickle before, then get ready for a good laugh. This is one of the quirkiest and fun traditions of modern day Christmas celebrations although it claims to be centuries old.
We’ve hung a glass pickle ornament, or Christmas Pickle, on our tree for as long as I can remember. My mom told us it was an old Polish tradition that’s been around forever. I’m sure we asked for more details, but that’s really the only background we were given. She would hide the pickle ornament somewhere on the Christmas tree after we’d gone to bed on Christmas Eve, and in the morning the first person to find it would get a small, extra gift! The gifts were always something my sister and I had to use together like a board game or a puzzle, but it was so much fun trying to play I Spy with a green pickle hidden among green pine needles.
As I’ve gotten older and learned more about Christmas traditions, the Legend of the Christmas Pickle still stands out- not only for the absurdity of including a pickle in a holiday tradition, but because it seems to be a tradition that came from no where. Really, it’s like pickle ornaments just started popping up everywhere and there’s a vague myth (or two) about how this quirky practice all began. Unlike my mother, most folks claim that the tradition of hiding a pickle on a Christmas tree hails from Germany (not Poland), and there this modern tradition goes by the name, Weihnachtsgurke. That’s the German name for Christmas Pickle, a Christmas Gherkin. If, for no other reason, you’ve got to love this tradition for its comedy. Because I don’t know about you, but nothing puts me in the Christmas spirit like a December Dill.
Anyway, despite the widespread claims and shared backstory of the Christmas Pickle across North America which swears that Germans have been hanging pickles on their tannenbaums for centuries, there seems to be no real evidence of any such thing. Modern day Germans vehemently deny the claim, and to date no one has found any historic sources that mention German Christmas Pickles. The best connection is that glass ornaments that became popular early in American Christmas traditions were made in Germany and often shaped like fruits and veggies. That’s not a terribly strong connection. It only asserts that possibly a lot of glass pickle ornaments once came from Germany.
There’s also a wild story about a Bavarian-born Union soldier, John C. Lower, during the American Civil War, who was captured by the Confederacy. On Christmas Eve, he begged one of the soldiers guarding him for a pickle because he was starving. The guard gave him the pickle, and Lower later said that that small bit of sustenance saved his life. To credit the pickle, thank the pickle, pay homage to the pickle- I cannot figure out a non-silly way of saying that- John C. Lower hung a pickle on his Christmas tree for the rest of his life, and the tradition caught on from there. I’m not really sure what we’re supposed to think of this one, but if anyone knows the descendants of Bavarian born John C. Lower, I’d love to buy them a coffee and have a long chat.
If you’re not giggling a little by now about the Legend of the Christmas Pickle, I’d have to wonder if you have any Christmas spirit at all! Wherever the tradition came from, it’s a popular and dearly-held one now. You can find pickle ornaments at numerous stores, and several of them are even made in Germany. But taking the Christmas Pickle tradition farther than anyone else is Berrien Springs, Michigan. A large pickle producing area, Berrien Springs has laid claim to the title, Christmas Pickle Capital of the World. The town celebrated an annual Christmas Pickle Festival in early December. After reading up on several old articles about this festival, I have to say that it sounds absolutely fabulous and so funny! The festival was kicked off by a Pickle Parade led by the Grand Dillmeister who passed out fresh pickles along the parade route. Shops offered pickle-shaped jewelry and all sorts of pickle-related food delicacies. Unfortunately, the town’s festival has become a more generalized Christmas celebration than a Christmas Pickle party over the last decade. But if we ever hear they’ve gone back to their Christmas Pickle Festival, I’ll be the first one to book a hotel room!
So perhaps the Legend of the Christmas Pickle comes from an obscure part of Germany or from a pickle-starved Union soldier, but the true origins of the pickle myth aren’t important. All we care about is that families of all kinds get to enjoy the silliness and fun of hiding a pickle on their tree together. If you choose to enjoy the tradition a little more by holding a gherkin-themed gather so much the better!