Each december, millions of people dust off Christmas ornaments and hang them on their respective trees. They carefully place glass baubles and string lights to respect a tradition that, as we already know, has very ancient origins.
However, in Berrien Springs, Michigan, some Christmas trees have something to hide. But why, if they are adorned in tinsel, string lights, and ornaments, and they don’t absolutely appear out of the ordinary?
A closer look might reveal a shimmering emerald vegetable hiding inside the evergreen branches. No mistake, you’ve just spotted a Weihnachtsgurke, or a Christmas pickle.
According to the (supposedly) German tradition, the first child to track down the pickle ornament is awarded an extra gift, the liberty of opening the first present, or sometimes, cold, hard cash.
Popular in parts of the Midwestern United States, pickle hunting on Christmas morning is an annual holiday tradition.
Its true origin, however, is a mystery.
Even if its roots are allegedly German, the vast majority of Germans have never even heard of the practice. In addition, It seems that Germans don’t do the pickle thing at all. Within Germany, it’s quite puzzling that local newspapers have published articles explaining this tradition that’s supposedly theirs, even though a couple of years ago survey found that 91 percent of Germans had never heard of the Christmas pickle.
So, who were the original harbingers of hidden Christmas pickles?
According to a legend, it was a soldier called John Lower who started the tradition in the 19th century. The Bavarian-born Private had enlisted in the 103rd Pennsylvania Infantry, but while fighting in the American Civil War, he was captured in April 1864 and taken to a Confederate prison camp in Georgia. On Christmas Eve he begged a guard for a pickle while starving. The guard provided the pickle, which Lower later credited for saving his life. After returning to his family, he began a tradition of hiding a pickle on their Christmas tree each year.
A simpler story claims poor folks in Germany once hung them up in lieu of other ornaments, while the legend preferred by those in Berrien Springs dates the Christmas pickle to the Middle Ages. As story goes, two Spanish boys headed home during the holidays stopped at an inn for the night. Inexplicably, the grumpy innkeeper stuffed the two boys into a pickle barrel. When St. Nicholas (the man behind Santa Claus) coincidentally popped by that very same inn, he sensed trouble, tapped on the barrel with his staff, and rescued the two boys from being pickled to death.
Unfortunately, the most likely explanation is that it was all a marketing ploy. In the late 19th century, The F. W. Woolworth Company, an American retail company, began importing ornaments and decorations from Germany, and the legend helped sell what would otherwise be a somewhat random veggie ornament. Selling a legend proved far easier than selling merely a decorative vegetable and centuries later both pickle and legend live on.
Even Germans seem to be warming up to this amusing tradition. As the Hamburger Morgenpost put it: “Although it seems a little curious to hang a glass cucumber between tinsel and straw stars, many German families have now recognized the advantage: The annual ‘Who-may-first-open-a-gift’ discussion is dropped.”
And still today you can see the occasional Weihnachtsgurke in trees across the Midwest and even parts of Germany (it seems). That is, of course, if you look carefully….