Christmas Pickle: History of Your New Favorite Tradition

Christmas pickle decoration

Christmas is all about traditions. While some traditions, like gift-giving, cookie baking, and caroling, are well known, other traditions, such as the Christmas pickle, is lesser-known and practiced by the masses. A mysterious trend on the rise, the Christmas pickle is worth learning about and perhaps incorporating into your seasonal festivities.

Christmas Pickle Tradition

Many people trim their Christmas trees in preparation for the holiday season. Lights, tinsel, and ornaments get hung from branches that sparkle and glow. In some homes, one of those branches holds a small, green ornament in the shape of a pickle.

Those who utilize this seemingly strange tradition decorate their tree, hiding a small pickle ornament last. On Christmas morning, children rush down the stairs and search for the infamous Christmas pickle. The first child to find the pickle sometimes receives a special treat. In other homes, the finder of the pickle gets the honor of opening the first Christmas present. The concept behind hiding this ornament is to keep kids from rushing through Christmas morning. It appears that a bit of "Find the Pickle" helps to slow everybody down.

So, where did the hiding of the Christmas pickle begin? The origins of the tradition and the story behind it are muddled at best. There are several theories about how the Christmas pickle got started, and while none are confirmed as THE root of the tradition, some theories are certainly more plausible than others.

A German Tradition

Although it is commonly stated that the Christmas pickle tradition began in Germany, facts don't support this theory. In fact, many Germans say they have never heard of this custom. In 2016, a survey was done among German Nationals. Only 8% of the people surveyed had ever heard of hiding the Christmas pickle, and only 2% of the survey Germans said they practiced the tradition. One would think that if the Christmas pickle had German roots, the tradition would be common knowledge among its people.

But could it still have come from Germany at some point? Silke-Maria Weineck, a German Studies and Comparative Literature professor at the University of Michigan, thinks it is possible. Weineck, a German herself, says that while the Christmas pickle doesn't sound like a German holiday custom (their Christmas traditions tend to be more solemn), the country has varying cultural practices. So the idea of the Christmas pickle could have popped up in a particular region of Germany and gotten carried over to America before the tradition ever spread or became common in Germany itself.

The final debunking of Germany being behind the pickle is in how Germans celebrate Christmas itself. Per the pickle lore, the Christmas pickle gets hidden on Christmas Eve, and presents are opened on December 25th, Christmas Day. In Germany, their version of Santa, St. Nick, comes on December 6th, not the 24th. Kids in Germany also don't open gifts on December 25th. Instead, they see what was brought on December 24th, throwing the Christmas pickle tradition timeline off.

The Andersonville Pickle

An alternate theory regarding the history of Christmas pickles attributes the custom to Civil War soldier John Lower. After being captured and sent to prison in Andersonville, Georgia, his health took a turn for the worse. As he was starving and near death, he begged the prison guard for one pickle before he died. The guard took pity on him, giving Mr. Lower a pickle that he later claimed gave him the physical and mental strength to continue living. When he returned to his family after the war, Mr. Lower began hiding a pickle on the Christmas tree to bring fortune and good luck to the one who found it on Christmas morning.

The Christmas Pickle Capital of the World

Today, Berrien Springs, Michigan, calls itself the Christmas Pickle Capital of the World. This town, which was once a major producer of pickles, capitalized on the Christmas pickle concept and began holding a Christmas pickle festival in December, starting in 1992. The town eventually moved their pickle celebration to the warmer months and replaced it with a Kindle Your Christmas Spirit festival.

Christmas pickle ornament

A Darker Tale Behind the Pickle

According to HistoryDaily.org, the tradition actually may have originated from a story about some Spanish boys traveling home from boarding school for the holidays. They were stuffed into a pickle barrel by a mean innkeeper and later let go when St. Nicholas took pity on them and freed them. There is also a darker version of the story, but this first one is more befitting of the tradition.

A Money-Making Idea Turned Tradition

Blown glass ornaments have long been a German tradition. In the 1880s, the Woolworth department store began selling glass ornaments, which often came in the shapes of fruits and vegetables. One idea behind the pickle is that while people snatched up the more common food-inspired ornaments, the pickle-shaped ones continued to sit on the shelves. In an attempt to sell them, a savvy salesman created a story to go along with the pickle ornament, making it a desirable one for Americans, who love themselves some traditions.

A Whimsical Holiday Tradition

No matter what you believe regarding the origins of the Christmas pickle, you can add whimsy and cheer to your holiday traditions by adding a Christmas pickle to your holiday tree. The kids will love starting Christmas morning with a little game, and as they search for the pickle, parents can have that first, ever-important, cup of Christmas coffee. In a way, everybody wins with the Christmas pickle!

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Christmas Pickle: History of Your New Favorite Tradition