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Christmas pickles: The story behind this "German" Christmas tradition

Christmas pickles: The story behind this "German" Christmas tradition

Christmas pickles: The story behind this "German" Christmas tradition

Ever heard of a Weihnachtsgurke? Hiding a Christmas ornament in the shape of a pickle among the branches of the tree is supposedly a centuries-old German Christmas tradition - but most people in the federal republic have never heard of it. A bit of a closer examination shows the legend is actually a bit of a fabrication. 

Is the Weihnachtsgurke really a German Christmas tradition?

It’s a tradition beloved by many families, particularly in the US and the UK: on Christmas Eve, after decorating their tree, the parents hide a pickle ornament among the branches. The next day, on the holiday itself, the first child to find the pickle receives either an extra present, or good fortune for the coming year (or both!)

In some stories, the pickle-hiding game is a centuries-old tradition from Germany that has been passed down through the generations. In others, a captured German-American soldier was saved from starvation on Christmas Eve during the Civil War by eating a pickle. Other people believe that the tradition is related to St Nicholas resurrecting three boys who had been murdered and hidden in a barrel of pickles. 

The flaw in the legend

Anyone familiar with a traditional German Christmas will quickly see some glaring flaws in this cosy Christmas story - most notably that the arrival of Saint Nicholas is celebrated in Germany on December 6, rather than on Christmas Eve, and that traditionally children in Germany open their presents on December 24, rather than Christmas Day. 

But beyond this, the biggest problem with the so-called “legend” is the fact that no one in Germany seems to have ever heard of it. In a December 2016 survey, YouGov found that only 7 percent of Germans had ever heard of the Weihnachtsgurke, while only 6 percent with children actually practise the custom. 

Selling Christmas pickles in the US

Rather than a beloved, inherited family tradition, it actually seems likely that the Christmas pickle’s roots are a whole lot more commercial. 

The German connection comes from the fact that blown glass ornaments were first produced in Germany in the early 17th century. By the mid-19th century, baubles were being mass-produced. In the 1880s they were discovered by the American F. W. Woolworth during a visit to Germany. He started importing them back to the US in the late 19th century - and made a fortune. 

Back then, as now, they came in a whole range of shapes and sizes, including various fruits, nuts, vegetables and - yes - pickles. It has been suggested that wily salespeople capitalised on the popularity of German Christmas traditions in the US, concocting a legend around the pickle to help shift leftover stock. The packaging of Christmas pickles typically bore an explanation about the “time-honoured German tradition”. And things - if you’ll forgive the pun - sort of snowballed from there. 

Christmas pickles heading back to Germany

The final irony of the story is that the Christmas pickle tradition has now been exported (back?) to Germany, where it is now rising in popularity, popping up in shops across the country - presumably being marketed as a US holiday tradition. 

Abi

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Abi Carter

Abi studied History & German at the University of Manchester. She has since worked as a writer, editor and content marketeer, but still has a soft spot for museums, castles...

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