Christmas pickle debunked....
The German Christmas Pickle Tradition:
Myth or Reality?
It never fails. Every December someone asks about the German Christmas pickle ornament that's supposed to have a long tradition in Germany.
Here's the pickle “legend” from one Web site: “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 they knew the most observant child would receive an extra gift from St. Nicholas. The first adult who finds the pickle traditionally gets good luck for the whole year.” This Christmas pickle story, with a few minor variations, can be found all over the Web and in print inside the ornament package. It says that Germans hang a pickle-shaped glass ornament on the Christmas tree hidden away so it's difficult to find. The first child to find it on Christmas morning gets a special treat or an extra present.
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. (See our German Christmas Guide for more about German Christmas customs.)
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. Over the years this question has repeatedly come up on the AATG (German Teachers) forum. Teachers of German in the U.S. and in Europe have never been able to find a native German who has even heard of the pickle legend, much less carried out this Christmas custom. It may have been some German-American invention by someone who wanted to sell more glass ornaments for Christmas. Or could the Weihnachtsgurke be an obscure regional custom that few people are aware of?
A number of years ago when she was About's “Germany for Visitors” Guide, Rita Mace Walston wrote an article about the Christmas pickle ornament tradition. Despite her German background, she also had never heard of it. She wrote: “I did some first-hand research, asking friends, acquaintances, and even a few Christmas market vendors if they knew of the custom. I consulted my family in Bavaria, my best friend in Swabia, and folks who hailed from the different regions of Germany. No one had a clue as to what I was talking about. One acquaintance wanted to know if I wasn't trying to pull one over on her...”
Then Rita heard from someone who claimed to have an answer that might solve the mystery. A descendent of a soldier who fought in the American Civil War, John Lower (Hans Lauer?), born in Bavaria in 1842, wrote to tell about a family story that had to do with a Christmas pickle. According to family lore, “John Lower was captured and sent to prison in Andersonville, Georgia. ...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 John Lower. According to family legend, John said that the pickle—by the grace of God—gave him the mental and physical strength to live on. Once he was reunited with his family he began a tradition of hiding a pickle on the Christmas tree. The first person who found the pickle on Christmas morning would be blessed with a year of good fortune.”
Whether this Bavarian-American pickle story is true or not, and if it really gave rise to the Christmas pickle legend is open to question. One may doubt the story itself. If you thought you were dying, would your last wish be for a pickle? Plus, it's a long way from a real pickle in Georgia to a glass pickle ornament in Germany! The Civil War ended in 1865, but glass Christmas tree ornaments did not become popular in the U.S. until around 1880, when F.W. Woolworth began importing them from Germany. However, one thing is certain: the “German” Christmas pickle tradition is virtually unknown in Germany. But...
The Lauscha Connection
There may be, however, a somewhat tenuous German connection to the glass pickle ornament. As previously mentioned, glass Christmas ornaments were being produced in Germany. As early as 1597, the small town of Lauscha, now in the German state of Thuringia (Thüringen), was known for its glass-blowing (Glasbläserei). The small industry of glass-blowers produced drinking glasses and glass containers. In 1847 a few of the Lauscha craftsmen began producing glass ornaments (Glasschmuck) in the shape of fruits and nuts. These Glaskugeln were made in a unique hand-blown process combined with molds (formgeblasener Christbaumschmuck). 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. Although I earlier believed that the pickle ornaments were not sold in Germany, it turns out that they are! Recently a reader from the U.S. contacted me to say that during a December visit with a family in the small German town of Höxter she had not only seen Weihnachtsgurken ornaments for sale at the local Christmas market, but witnessed the Christmas tree custom itself being observed in the family's home in Höxter. But does that prove it's a German custom?
A Web search in German and English turned up only the fact that the pickle ornaments are indeed sold in parts of Germany, ranging from Höxter in North Rhine-Westphalia to Kissing in Bavaria. All of the German articles on the topic debunk the legend (some even refer to the myth article you are reading right now, first written and published in 2003). My efforts to get confirmation of the actual pickle custom from someone in Höxter have so far been fruitless. (Have the people there really kept this custom a secret for all these years?) We still lack any proof that this is truly a German custom, or that the custom is not a fairly recent invention. Has the popularity of the supposedly German legend in America brought it to Germany, or was it really the other way around? It's still a mystery.
All I can say for certain is that to this day almost no one in Germany has ever heard of the German Christmas pickle custom. So far I have found no historical or other evidence to indicate that the Weihnachtsgurke is a genuine Christmas custom from Germany. If anyone has proof otherwise or can tell me how this legend really got started, please let me know.
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