It never fails. Every December someone asks about the German Christmas pickle ornament that’s supposed to have a long tradition in Germany. It is a quaint tradition that nobody wants to claim.
The story says that a very old Christmas Eve tradition in Germany was to hide a pickle ornament deep in the branches of the family Christmas Tree. The parents hung the pickle last after all the other ornaments were in place. In the morning the first child to find the Christmas pickle would get an extra gift from Saint Nicholas. Or so the so-called legend goes. The first adult who finds the pickle traditionally gets good luck for the whole year.
Of course, anyone familiar with German Christmas customs can see the flaws in this “legend.” First of all, the German St. Nick doesn’t show up on Christmas Eve. He arrives on the 5th or 6th of December. Nor do German children open their presents on Christmas morning. That happens on Christmas Eve in Germany. But the biggest problem with the German pickle (saure Gurke, Weihnachtsgurke) tradition is that no one in Germany seems to have ever heard of it.
The Lauscha Connection
There may be, however, a somewhat tenuous German connection to the glass pickle ornament. Glass Christmas ornaments were being produced in Germany as early as 1597, in the small town of Lauscha, now in the German state of Thuringia (Thüringen). In 1847 a few of the Lauscha craftsmen began producing glass ornaments (Glasschmuck) in the shape of fruits and nuts. These Glaskugeln (glass ornaments) were made in a unique hand-blown process combined with molds. Soon these unique Christmas ornaments were being exported to other parts of Europe, as well as England and the U.S.
Today Lauscha exports glass pickle ornaments to the U.S.—where they are sold along with the “German” tradition story. The pickle ornaments are indeed sold in parts of Germany, ranging from Höxter in North Rhine-Westphalia to Kissing in Bavaria. But does that prove it’s a German custom?
Two Mythical Stories
There are two other versions of the origins of the Christmas pickle. One is a family story of a Bavarian-born ancestor who fought in the American Civil War. A prisoner in poor health and starving, he begged a guard for just one pickle before he died. The guard took pity on him and found a pickle for him. The pickle by the grace of God gave him the mental and physical strength to live on.
The other, perpetuated in Berrien Springs, MI, is a medieval tale of two Spanish boys traveling home from boarding school for the holidays. When they stopped at an inn for the night, the innkeeper, a mean and evil man, stuffed the boys into a pickle barrel. That evening, St. Nicholas stopped at the same inn, became aware of the boys’ plight, tapped the pickle barrel with his staff, and the boys were magically freed.
Berrien Springs calls itself the Christmas Pickle Capital of the World. They celebrate with an annual Christmas Pickle Festival held during the early part of December. A parade, led by the Grand “Dillmeister”, who passes out fresh pickles along the parade route, is the featured event. You may even purchase the German glass pickle ornaments at the town’s museum.
Regardless of where it came from, the Christmas tradition survives. Ornament manufacturers continue to make the specialty pickle decoration and enjoy perpetuating the myth of its legendary origins — false though they may be.
Photo © Jamie Anderson