My family's Christmas Eve tradition is to visit our friends' house before we go to a late service at church. For years, our hosts have hidden a pickle ornament in their Christmas tree, and all the kids at the party search for it. The one who finds it gets a really big candy bar.
Hiding the pickle ornament is a tradition for many families, but where did it originate? There's a general belief that it's an old German tradition. But if you search for the origins of the Christmas pickle ornament, you'll find several different explanations.
"There are many stories," says Rich Mulhearn, assistant manager for the Philadelphia Käthe Wohlfahrt store at the Christmas Village. Wohlfahrt — A Germany company that sells handcrafted traditional Christmas decor — also has an anchor location at the Baltimore Christmas Village, where glass-blown pickle ornaments are popular sellers. Mulhearn believes the tradition is from just one small region in Germany.
"The story I believe is that it started in a small town in Bavaria around the Polish border," he says. He has heard from people of Polish heritage that it's a tradition in their families.
The American tradition may have its roots in the 1890s, when a photo of Queen Victoria and her Christmas tree revealed she decorated it with glass-blown ornaments.
"It became popular in the United States to have blown-glass ornaments of vegetables," says Mulhearn, who attributes one pickle theory to simply an abundance of cucumber ornaments one year.
"Where the pickle took off was in a Wisconsin store in the 1890s," he says of one legend. "There were people in that store from the region of Bavaria that knew about the pickle tradition. They got stuck with a whole bunch of cucumber ornaments and they transplanted the pickle story to Wisconsin."
In other words, the story may have originated as a marketing tool.
The pickle as a lifesaver
The origins of hiding a pickle ornament in a tree may be unknown, yet it's now a common addition to many Americans' Christmas trees. (Photo: Mira Mechtly [CC BY-SA 2.0]/Flickr)
Another story that Mulhearn likes, but doesn't necessarily believe, is one he read online about a pickle saving someone's life.
"A Civil War prisoner of German heritage who fought for the Union side was in a southern prison camp," he says. "He was begging for some food, and a guard gave him a pickle. He claims it saved his life. He went back to his home up North and after that he put a pickle on his tree."
Mulhearn admits he may be wrong about how the tradition started, but there's no doubt it's now an American tradition.
When the market research firm YouGov conducted a poll of 2,057 Germans in 2016, 91% had never heard of the holiday tradition, according to The New York Times. Yet in America, it's a popular tradition still widely attributed to Germany.
At the Käthe Wohlfahrt stores at the Christmas Villages in Baltimore and Philadelphia, the pickle ornaments sell out each year. Some people buy as many as they have children so each kid can find a hidden pickle and get a special gift.
We may never know what sparked the interest in hiding pickle ornaments. We do know, however, that many of us now hide green pickles among the green branches of Christmas trees so kids can find them to win a gift. That's a tradition.