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Christmas Unwrapped: Uncovering a Barrel of Glass Pickles

Ah, the holidays. Days filled with Christmas traditions - moments and things that center our holiday memories. Some are specific to our families, but others have become part of how we celebrate each year. Many of us assume they have been handed down, year after year, generation to generation. And some of them have been.

Others are assumed to be centuries old but have a much more modern origin. Some people in the immigrant-established United States have even created mythologies about these more-recent traditions, claiming that they were something brought with their ancestors as they migrated to North America from around the world. Over the next few days, we are going to unwrap more of our traditions and mythologies about Christmas.

The Story of the Christmas Pickle (Weihnachtsgurken).

For years, families in the United States have hidden a Christmas Pickle in their decorated trees. There it lays nestled, until a lucky child finds it on Christmas morning and earns one last, special gift. The tradition is said to be one brought over from Germany, and it has grown over the decades in communities across the country. Berrien Springs, Michigan even holds an annual Christmas Pickle festival each December.

But when asked, most people in Germany have never heard of the pickles. Even more, researchers have said that the story told to center the tradition does not hold up under scrutiny. St. Nicholas does not arrive in Germany on Christmas Eve, but weeks earlier, delivering presents in early December. Other gifts are not opened on Christmas morning, but at gatherings on Christmas Eve. No one really knows where the tradition became part of the culture in North America, but by the 1890’s, it had started to circulate. However, there are a few clues to follow. Ornate glass ornaments were of the biggest Christmas exports from Germany in the mid-to-late 1800’s. As department stores began to become central parts of Main Street in each small town and city in the nation, they ordered many of these ornaments to sell to their customers and often these were shaped like fruit and nuts, especially those from the German village of Lauscha in Thuringia. The village is known for its glass-blowing industry, and today it produces many pickles to export to the United States and other parts of the world.

Today, a few villages in around Lausha sell the pickles and the traditional story to accompany it. Meaning this American tradition has been exported from the United States. Other supposed myths about the pickle story’s origin started to circulate as the truth of the non-German tradition were shared. Some claimed that it dated to the Civil War and a captured Union soldier who begged his Confederate guards for one last pickle before he died. Others claimed that the tradition began as another recognition of St. Nick – this one linked to his role as a superhero who saved two young boys from drowning in a giant pickle barrel as he traveled the world delivering gifts. These other stories also fail to live up to scrutiny.

The most likely creator of the Christmas Pickle is F.W. Woolworth or one of his employees. Woolworth imported many of these ornaments over the years for his growing chain. Pickles now nestle in so many trees because salesmen in the late 19th and early 20th century needed a way to sell a surplus of glass ornaments.

The legend of Weihnachtsgurken was created to sell glass pickles.

However, that does not mean it should be eliminated from the traditions in your own family. "The less there is to justify a traditional custom, the harder it is to get rid of it," Mark Twain wrote in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

We carry traditions because they create fondness and memories of times past. As you put your ornaments away after this Christmas season, keep your pickles. Like so many traditions, the story of the Christmas Pickle provokes generosity - of spirit and in our connections to one another.

No matter if the Christmas Pickle decorated the homes of European ancestors, or it became part of your family's traditions in more recent decades - it can remain a part of your family's holiday folklore.

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