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The Christmas Pickle: Age-Old German Tradition or Quirky All-American Custom?

Nov 14th 2023

Christmas is a holiday of traditions. From decorating the Christmas tree to leaving cookies for Santa, families cherish their Christmas rituals and pass them along to their children. One of the more puzzling traditions, however, involves the Christmas pickle ornament.

What is a Christmas Pickle?

Many children grew up with the Christmas pickle tradition. In its simplest form, the practice involves hiding a pickle-shaped ornament in the family Christmas tree. Not surprisingly, a green pickle ornament can be hard to spot amongst the green tree branches!

In some families, a parent hides the pickle ornament in the tree on Christmas Eve, after the children are in bed. In other families, a child is given the favor of hiding the ornament.

Sometimes, Santa hides the ornament.

On Christmas morning, children scramble to be the first to find the pickle. Their reward may be a special gift, the honor of handing out the presents or the opportunity to be the first to open their gifts. Some people believe the Christmas pickle brings good luck to the finder.

green glass Christmas pickle ornament

The Mystery of the Christmas Pickle

Pickle ornaments are said to be an age-old German tradition, although the origin stories don’t take place in Germany. One legend of the Christmas pickle links it to a German-American Civil War prisoner who begged a guard for a pickle. The man, who had been near death, miraculously survived. Another more gruesome Christmas pickle story involves murdered children whose bodies were hidden in a pickle barrel. They were resurrected when St. Nick tapped the barrel with his cane.

These stories are intriguing, but unlikely. It seems more reasonable to assume that the pickle ornament tradition caught on because, well, Germans like their pickles. Right?

Not necessarily. In fact, there aren’t many facts linking Christmas pickles to Germany – or to Santa’s midnight visit, either. For one thing, St. Nicholas visits German children on December 6, St. Nicholas Day. Also, German families traditionally open gifts together on Christmas Eve, so hiding the pickle in the tree on this date doesn’t make sense.

In November 2016, YouGov discovered that 91% of Germans surveyed were unaware of the tradition of the Christmas pickle. Overall, only 2% of Germans practiced the custom that has become so popular in America.

In fact, according to a New York Times article, one ornament maker from Lauscha, Germany, where blown glass Christmas ornaments originated, only learned about the Christmas tree pickle during a trip to the U.S. in the 1990s! His glass factory now makes thousands of pickles each year.

Three christmas pickle ornaments

What’s the True Christmas Pickle Story?

It’s far more likely that the pickle Christmas ornament legend has only a vague link to Germany and caught on in the U.S. due to clever marketing.

Woolworth’s department store in New York City was one of the first American stores to import blown glass Christmas ornaments from Germany in the 1880s. Fruit and vegetables were common early ornament motifs – including pickles. However, the pickle Christmas ornaments didn’t sell as well as other ornaments.

It’s possible some quick-witted19th Century Woolworth’s clerk improved the odd ornament’s popularity by inventing a legend for it. German immigrants, especially, might view the green glass gherkin more favorably if they thought they were maintaining a tradition from their homeland.

These days, thousands of Christmas pickle ornaments are sold each year. Some even come with the pickle ornament story attached, or a pickle poem explaining the tradition.

Regardless of the truth of the Christmas pickle story, hiding the pickle in the Christmas tree is a beloved family tradition that continues to grow in popularity.

To start your own family Christmas pickle tradition, browse our selection of pickle ornaments!  

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Christmas Central Resources: Christmas Traditions

The Christmas Pickle: Age-Old German Tradition or Quirky All-American Custom?

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