The German Christmas Pickle: Tradition or Marketing? (REBROADCAST of Episode 17)

Originally released December 28, 2020. Many Americans have heard of the age-honored German tradition of hanging Pickle-shaped ornament on the Christmas Tree. But is it really a tradition in Germany? This episode explores the truth and myths behind this German “tradition.”

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The legend goes like this: Every year, a pickle ornament is hidden somewhere on the Christmas Tree and the family searches for it. The person who is first to find the pickle gets an extra gift from Saint Nicholas on Christmas morning. And if an adult finds it first, they get good luck for the next year. And everywhere this tradition is talked about, it’s talked about as an old German Tradition. 

It’s become a celebrated thing for many people. You can go to any Christmas shop in America and find a German Christmas ornament. In Berrien Springs, Michigan, they billed themselves the Christmas Pickle Capital of the world. Listen, Berrien Springs – I’ve never visited you, but isn’t there something else you could claim for your town? Yikes. It’s not just Berrien Springs, Michigan – it’s obviously a huge thing outside of Germany. 

But there’s a problem. Not many actual Germans have heard of it. At least, if you talk to older German people; people whose families have lived in Germany for generations, it’s apparrently…not a thing. 

So the article I referenced mentions that this is a frequent topic of discussion for American expats living in Germany. And it’s definitely a thing that’s promoted and sold in America as a German tradition. 

But it just doesn’t pass the sniff test. 

Saint Nicholas doesn’t visit German homes on Christmas Eve. He visits on December 6th. So it wouldn’t make sense for him to give an extra gift after he’s already visited. Also, German children open gifts on Christmas Eve, so anything that says finding the pickle means they get to open an extra gift on Christmas morning is wrong. But okay – maybe some of the descriptions of this tradition just have the timing wrong. The main smoking gun that tells us the Christmas Pickle is more myth than tradition is the fact that I mentioned earlier. Most actual Germans don’t acknowledge it as any sort of long-standing German tradition. So where the heck did it come from?

One story is more American in nature. A Bavarian immigrant named John Lauer fought in the American Civil War and ended up in the horrible conditions of the Andersenville Prison Camp. Starved almost to death, he begged the guards for something to eat and finally received a pickle, which nourished him to health and helped him ultimately survive the camp. As the story goes, it was Lauer that started the tradition for his family of telling the story and hiding the pickle on the Christmas Tree every year. 

Another story comes from Christmas Pickle Capital of the World, Berrien Springs, Michigan – which I should point out, is also not in Germany. In Berrien Springs, they tell a tale about two Spanish children (not German) who were trapped in a pickle barrel. Apparently the story is that Saint Nicholas rescued the boys. Can you imagine being a Spanish kid trapped in a barrel of pickles, then when you escape, they remind you of your near demise every year by putting a pickle on the Christmas tree? Merry Christmas! Remember when you almost died?

So there’s another theory that seems much closer to the truth. In 1847, glass ornaments in the shape of fruits and nuts started being made in the German town of Lauscha. The town had been known for 200 years for its glass-blowing. Some of these were being imported to America by Woolworths. They became a popular item and sold at Woolworths for many years. The story of the Christmas Pickle very well may have been a marketing ploy to sell more of these glass ornaments. Everyone loves a good story and to think that the story is part of larger, European-inspired tradition – that, my friend, is how you move pickles.

The number one reason we know that the German Tradition of the Christmas Pickle isn’t any sort of German tradition is that The Germans say it’s not. While the pickle ornaments are sold in Germany today and there are some families who practice putting the pickle on the tree, most Germans will tell you that they’ve never heard of it. 

There you have it. It doesn’t seem like a real German Tradition at all. But don’t let that stop you. If this is one of those things your family loves to do at Christmas-time. Just keep on it. Make it your family’s thing. Just know that it’s not as European as advertised. My only question is….who’s going to tell the folks in Berrien, Michigan?

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Forgotten history, bizarre tales & facts that seem too strange to be true! Host Michael Kent asks listeners to tell him something strange, bizarre or surprising that they've recently learned and he gets to the bottom of it! Every episode ends by playing a gameshow-style quiz game with a celebrity guest. Part of the WCBE Podcast Experience.

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