As legend has it, in Germany parents decorate their Tannenbaums on Christmas Eve. The last ornament hung is die Weinachtsgurke-a delicate glass ornament in the shape of a pickle. This is a significant ornament, for the next morning the children will rush in to open their gifts from St. Nicholas. But the festivities can not begin until one of the children locates the elusive gherkin. The one who finds it gets to open the first gift, and may even receive an extra treat for his or her effort. So the story is told here in America. Glass Christmas Pickles are a popular ornament, and usually come with the curious legend tucked or printed on the box.
The oddest part about this legend is that it is virtually unknown in Germany. Nobody knows where it came from, or who started it. Well known is the fact that the decorating of Christmas Trees with lights, ornaments, and tinsel originated in Germany, but unless the Pickle Tradition was practiced in a remote region of the fatherland, it is likely that the legend was created at least in part by Americans, perhaps of German descent. There are several stories floating around about how the tradition may have started.
One rumor tells of a Bavarian-born Union soldier fighting in the Civil War named John Lower (or perhaps Hans Lauer) who was captured and sent to prison in Georgia. In poor health and starving, the prisoner begged for just one pickle before he died. A merciful guard took pity and found him a pickle. Miraculously, John lived, and after he returned home he began the tradition of the Christmas Pickle, promising good fortune to the one who found the special ornament on Christmas Day.
If this story seems a bit stretched, there is a second story being perpetuated in Berrien Springs, Michigan, where 24% of the population report German ancestry. Residents claim that hundreds of years ago two young Spanish boys, when traveling home from boarding school one Christmas Eve, sought refuge for the night at an inn. Here they encountered a cantankerous inn-keeper who trapped them in a pickle barrel. When St. Nicholas stopped at the inn that evening he sensed their distress and tapped the barrel with his staff, magically freeing them. Whether this story is true or not, Berrien Springs calls itself The Christmas Pickle Capital of the World.
The first ornaments used by Germans to decorate Christmas Trees were fruits, particularly apples, and nuts. These, along with the evergreen tree itself, represented the certainty that life would return in the spring. In the mid-eighteen hundreds, a few enterprising individuals living in the village of Lauscha (in the present-day state of Thuringen) began selling glass ornaments. Using fruit and nut molds at first, they eventually branched out, adding thousands of molds to their repertoire: angels, bells, saints, hearts, stars, and so on. Still, there is no evidence of their having made a pickle, or of the pickle tradition ever being practiced in Lauscha or any other German village.
Wherever the legend came from, the Christmas Pickle Tradition is here to stay. Several German glass ornament makers have capitalized on the story and offer a variety of gherkins, dills and cucumbers (some even donning cheery Santa caps!), perpetuating the myth even as their German neighbors vehemently deny having ever heard of it. Whatever the origin, the tradition is sure to bring a hearty dose of Christmas cheer. And isn’t that the point?