My German grandmother taught me all I needed to know about cooking and our heritage, including how to make sauerkraut, homemade smoked sausage and perfect spritz cookies. But she never told me about the Christmas pickle.
What? A Christmas Pickle?
I found out about this elusive gherkin a few years ago at a holiday party when we were challenged to find the pickle in the Christmas tree. The first guest to spot it won a prize. Others seemed to understand this task and got right to it, but I was confused.
I was told hiding a pickle ornament (die Weihnachtsgurke) in the tree was an old German tradition. The first child to find it on Christmas morning receives a special gift and is blessed with good luck. Because my family takes great pride in our German customs–we’ve tipped a few at Oktoberfest–I was surprised I had never heard of such a thing. So I decided to investigate. What I found might surprise you.
These Pickles Are Not Widely Known in Germany
According to a 2016 New York Times article, the YouGov polling agency surveyed more than 2,000 native Germans about whether they had ever heard of hanging die Weihnachtsgurke on their tannenbaums, and a whopping 91% said no. If the Germans don’t know about it, where did it come from?
I unearthed a couple of possible sources:
Source No. 1: A Medieval Tale from Michigan
The first legend is often told in the Berrien Springs, Mich., area, also known as “The Pickle Capital of the World.” Two Spanish boys were kidnapped by an evil innkeeper, who stuffed them into a pickle barrel. St. Nicholas happened by and rescued the lads. Granted, this is a harrowing-turned-heartwarming tale, but Germans celebrate St. Nick’s on Dec. 6 (the tree’s not supposed to be up yet). And what do kids in a pickle barrel have to do with a pickle in a tree? I’m not buying it.
Source No. 2: Civil War Drama in Georgia
The second possible origin involved a captured Civil War soldier in Georgia. Dying, he begged the prison guards for a pickle. They obliged. The soldier regained his strength and eventually found his way home. Each year, he hung a pickle on his Christmas tree in thanks for his good fortune. This tale has a happy ending, but who has to eat a pickle as their dying wish? OK, maybe it might be one of my final wishes, but only if it was this classic bread-and-butter recipe. Regardless, it seems unlikely that others would hear this story and be so moved to hang real pickles on their trees. Would you do that?
The Truth May Lie in 19th Century Marketing
I did find a connection between these stories and pickle ornament sales. Both of these legends started to gain traction in the 1880s, right around the time F.W. Woolworth Co. stores started selling imported German glass ornaments in the United States, some in the shapes of fruits and vegetables. Maybe savvy sales reps made up stories to sell excess pickles? Could be. We may never know.
Warm, Fuzzy Alert: The Story Doesn’t Matter, the Memories Do
I hope my investigation doesn’t leave you salty. Kids still love the tradition, and we should keep it going. So if you have a pickle, hide it in your tree. And if die Weihnachtsgurke is new to you, hang one up and feel free to spin your own yarn. After all, fun family traditions, no matter what the source, create treasured memories to last a lifetime.
All this pickle talk making you hungry? Find out which pickle brands we love and which ones made us sour right here.