The Christmas Pickle Tradition: A Surprising History and How-to
Out of all the things I associate with the Christmas and Winter holidays, a pickle wasn’t one of them. Until last year when I was given a glass ornament for the Yule tree in the shape of a pickle. And yes, like you, I definitely scrunched my eyebrows a bit and wrinkled my nose. Why is this person giving me a pickle ornament of all things? There has to be a story behind this. Well, there is! Here we’ll dive into the pickle jar and learn where the Christmas pickle tradition actually came from, as well as learn how to carry on this fun holiday custom.
First, Let’s Talk About The Magical Pickle
I feel for us to fully understand the Christmas pickle tradition, we have to understand the importance of the pickle itself. The history of the pickle might surprise you. Or, at the very least, it will entertain you. So what is a pickle? A pickle is defined as an “article of food that has been preserved in brine or vinegar.” But what we typically think of when someone says pickle is a pickled cucumber. In the United States, pickles are often sliced into “spears” or slices and they come in a sour “dill” form or the sweet “bread and butter” variety.
But What About Cukes?
But before we go too deeply down the pickle hole, let’s talk about cucumbers a little. The cucumber is a “creeping plant of the gourd family, widely cultivated for its edible fruit”, according to Brittanica. Apparently it’s been cultivated for at least three thousand years from its native India, and the farming of cukes isn’t slowing down any time soon. They’ve long been associated with the element of water, as well as believed to have powers of chastity, healing and fertility. I’m going to go out on a limb and guess the fertility powers are due to the shape of the cucumber? One writer says eating the fruit hinders lust, yet eating the seeds promotes fertility.
The Pickle Symbolizes Preservation & Survival
Before I even researched the origins of the Christmas pickle tradition, I was already thinking symbolically how the cucumber and pickle might align with the Winter holidays. And surprisingly, I came up with a pretty reasonable theory. Pickle means preservation, which in older times was a necessary task – preserving food for Winter stores. The more you were able to preserve and store, the more food you had over the colder months, and the more likely you’d actually survive the Winter. And yes, pickles have been made for thousands of years, dating to at least 2000 BCE in the Tigris Valley. So this theory might just stand up!
A Strange But Interesting Piece of American Lore on Pickles…
“It is generally believed that a menstruating woman can perform all of her ordinary household tasks save one – she can’t pickle cucumbers. I have known women who laugh at most backwoods superstitions yet were convinced that there was something in this idea. One girl told me that she and her sister tried it out repeatedly, and that the pickles prepared by a girl who was menstruating were always soft or flabby, never properly crisp.”Vance Randolph, Ozark Magic and Folklore
So…Onto the Christmas Pickle Tradition
We know pickles are old as time, and we know they represent preservation through the Winter. But how the heck did the actual Christmas pickle tradition (or Weihnachtsgurke) start? And who made it an actual thing? Some sources will tell you it was a German tradition originally, brought to the United States with German immigrants. HOWEVER, this origin story might not be correct. There’s no solid evidence to support this claim. What we do find is a man named Tim Merck who has built his business on old-timey German folk art ornaments. Namely, the Christmas pickle. He claims it is a German tradition, while others say it’s actually a German-American tradition. The origins are truly convoluted.
Sketch Origin Stories and The TRUTH
There are origin stories involving German-American soldiers and people hiding in pickle barrels. Yet none of these stories have supposedly been heard of before by folks who actually live in Germany. Only by German-American families. The truth is, the pickle likely came as a marketing ploy in the 1880s when there was supposedly a surplus of glass pickle ornaments. Maybe folks will be disappointed to hear their tradition isn’t German in origin. To me, it doesn’t matter. Because any tradition we carry on in my family takes on a life of its own and is inherently magical.
I believe it’s simply an American tradition. But either way, the Christmas pickle has become a somewhat popular gag gift as well as actual activity for families. And its gaining popularity every year. The idea is the Christmas pickle is hidden in the Christmas tree, and on Christmas morning the first child to find it gets to open his or her gift first. What this does is gets the children to slow down and allows the family to enjoy their time together (rather than kids just tearing through their presents all at once). Alternatively, the first person who finds the Christmas pickle will have good luck all that coming year.
Bad Santa and the Wooden Christmas Pickle
When I brought up the Christmas pickle to my family the first time, my husband said, “you mean like in Bad Santa?” I couldn’t remember exactly what he meant, so I had to look it up for myself. And yes, the little boy whittles a wooden pickle for Billy Bob Thornton who’s the “Bad Santa” in the comedic film. I can’t help but wonder if this is a nod to the Christmas pickle tradition of the ornament in the tree.
How to Carry On the Christmas Pickle Tradition
The Christmas pickle tradition is easily carried on in your family, if you like a fun Christmas morning activity. In our family, we typically open presents then eat breakfast. But, honestly, my kids tear through the gifts so fast that it feels the Christmas morning was cut short. So the Christmas pickle is the perfect addition to our Yuletide fun. We switch it up with who gets to hide the pickle each year – either me or my husband (but to the kids, it’s actually Santa Claus who hides it). And we even try to hide the pickle in places the kids will never find it – inside of other larger ornaments, behind ornaments, under the tree topper, etc. Get creative and do something different each Christmas.
Remind the kids that when they wake up Christmas morning, they have to find the pickle before any gifts can be opened. And guess what? If you need a few extra minutes to sleep in, this custom affords you a little extra time. Don’t judge me. You know you’ve been awake until 3 am Christmas Eve preparing toys, putting together hot wheels, and drinking a little too much eggnog with your spouse! After the kids find the pickle, the present-opening may commence. Some folks will give the child who found the pickle a “special gift”, but truthfully I feel my kids get enough already. So, if you find the pickle, you get bragging rights AND good luck!
More Yuletide Fun:
- 20 Christmas Spices and Herbs to Fill Your Home With Joy
- La Befana: The Italian Christmas Witch
- Krampus: Who is Krampus the Christmas Devil?