There are many stories swirling about regarding the origins of the centuries-old tradition of hiding a pickle-like decoration on the Christmas tree. You know, that custom where the child who first finds the pickle is rewarded with one of three things: getting to open the first gift, receiving a special gift or being granted a year’s good fortune (one small step above getting coal in your stocking).
The beginning of this pagan ritual has become a bit of an enigma wrapped in a riddle. The commonly held belief among American pickle-hangers is that the tradition dates way back to an ingenious German following up Martin Luther’s introduction of the Christmas tree with an equally brilliant idea. Instead of hanging candles on a tinderbox of pine needles that was basically a conflagration waiting to happen, why not hang wet pickles instead? The good folks in the Fatherland liked it so much, they gave it a name, “Weihnachtgurke,” which roughly translates as “Oh, holy pickle night.”
Another origin tale claims sometime in the Middle Ages, give or take a year, a cruel German innkeeper trapped two Spanish boys in a pickle barrel on their way home from boarding school for Christmas break. Legend has it that St. Nick rescued them by cracking open the barrel with his staff. But this tale seems like a stretch. Boarding schools in the Middle Ages? Wrong!
A more modern twist involves a starving, Bavarian-born Union soldier surviving the horrors of Andersonville Prison due to the kindness of a Confederate guard who slipped him a pickle. The soldier supposedly credited the pickle with saving his life (there’s a first for everything). He celebrated the event by hanging a pickle from a Fraser fir every Christmas eve.
Lo and behold, a Grinch-like bah-humbug of a story has surfaced recently that’s rocked Christmas-pickle-loving citizens from Munich to Michigan. Turns out the merry pickle-in-a-tree is a myth. Manufactured by marketers! The pickle ritual was totally fabricated in the 1890s to drum up demand for shiny new baubles – imported glass Christmas tree decorations – from Germany. Doh!
The tradition is completely unknown in Germany. Ah, the power of advertising is never more evident than in the Advent season. Next thing you know, they’ll discover there’s no such thing as Santa Claus!
Hmmm…does that name sound German to you??