According to legend, in Germany parents decorate their Tannenbaums on Christmas Eve. The last hanging ornament is die Weinachtsgurke, a delicate glass ornament in the shape of a pickle. This is an important decoration, because the next morning the children will run in to open their gifts from Saint Nicholas. But the festivities can’t begin until one of the children locates the elusive pickle. Whoever finds it, can open the first gift and can even receive an extra gift for their effort. So the story is told here in America. Glass Christmas pickles are a popular ornament and usually come with the curious legend hidden or printed on the box.
The strangest thing about this legend is that it is practically unknown in Germany. No one knows where it came from or who started it. It is well known that decorating Christmas trees with lights, ornaments, and tinsel originated in Germany, but unless the pickle tradition was practiced in a remote region of the homeland, the legend is likely to have been created at least in part by Americans, perhaps of German descent. There are several stories floating about how the tradition may have started.
One rumor tells of a Bavarian-born Union soldier who fought in the Civil War named John Lower (or perhaps Hans Lauer) who was captured and sent to prison in Georgia. In poor health and hungry, the prisoner asked for only a pickle before dying. A merciful guard took pity and found him a pickle. Miraculously, John lived and, after returning home, began the Christmas pickle tradition, promising good luck to whoever found the special ornament on Christmas Day.
If this story seems a bit stretched, there is a second story that is perpetuated in Berrien Springs, Michigan, where 24% of the population report German ancestry. Residents say that hundreds of years ago two young Spaniards, when traveling home from boarding school on Christmas Eve, sought refuge to spend the night at an inn. There they met a curmudgeonly innkeeper who trapped them in a pickle barrel. When Saint Nicholas stopped by the inn that night, he sensed their anguish and struck the barrel with his staff, magically releasing them. Whether this story is true or not, Berrien Springs calls itself the Christmas Pickle Capital of the World.
The first ornaments used by the Germans to decorate Christmas trees were fruits, especially apples and walnuts. These, along with the evergreen tree itself, represented the certainty that life would return in the spring. In the middle of the eighteenth century, a few enterprising people living in the town of Lauscha (in present-day Thuringen state) began selling glass ornaments. Using fruit and nut molds in the beginning, they eventually branched out, adding thousands of molds to their repertoire: angels, bells, saints, hearts, stars, etc. Still, there is no evidence that they made a pickle, or that the pickling tradition was ever practiced in Lauscha or any other German town.
Whatever the origin of the legend, the Christmas pickle tradition is here to stay. Several German glass bauble makers have capitalized on the story, offering a variety of pickles, dill, and cucumbers (some even don cheerful Santa hats!), Perpetuating the myth even as their German neighbors vehemently deny ever having heard of it. he. Whatever the origin, the tradition is sure to bring a healthy dose of Christmas cheer. And isn’t that the point?