Of all the images that correspond with Christmas, I would have to say that the Christmas pickle is the one that throws me the most. Give me baby Jesus, candy canes, Santa Claus, mistletoe, presents, angels, stars, garland, gingerbread men….but a pickle? I remember the first time I opened an elaborate collection of fine glass Christmas ornaments and right there on the top row was the Christmas pickle.
I was told that the Christmas pickle was of German heritage. Being half German, I thought for sure I would’ve heard of this tradition at some point growing up, but I did not. As it turns out–the genesis of the Christmas pickle is not quite that simple. There are a number of stories surrounding where it came from and how it found it’s place on the tree.
Here are some theories:
German Legend – The story suggests that the pickle ornament, passed down from generations was the last ornament to be placed on the Christmas tree. It is hidden in the tree and the first child to find it on Christmas morning has good luck in the year ahead and gets a special gift. While it’s a great story, it has little validation in Germany. German glass ornaments in the shapes of fruits and vegetables and other items became popular in the United States in the late 1800’s which could explain the notation of it’s German origin. It is no wonder I never heard about this from my German ancestors, because they never heard of it either.
American Legend – During the American Civil War, Private John Lower was taken to a prison camp after being captured in Georgia in 1864. The story suggests that while starving on Christmas eve, Lower begged a prison guard for just a pickle to eat. The guard obliged out of pity and got him the pickle which saved his life. Once reunited with his family, Lower started a tradition of hanging a pickle on the Christmas tree every year. The person who was blessed with finding the pickle would receive good fortune in the year ahead.
Victorian Legend – Another pickle story comes out of the Victorian era when two Spanish children were said to be held captive in a barrel of pickles by a wretched innkeeper. They were saved by St.Nicholas and thus the pickle legend began.
The Christmas pickle is a fun tradition, no matter where it came from. So, when you open your ornaments and find the pickle there—indulge in this odd Christmas icon that has earned it’s rightful place on the tree.