Hiding the Holiday Pickle
This essay was originally published online at OliveReader.com.
Christmas morning, 2008. A light dusting of snow covers the ground outside my parents’ house in Iowa. Coffee is brewing. Three generations of our family are gathered around the artificial Christmas tree, in anticipation of a “surprise” that my mother has promised.
“This year, I thought we would start a new tradition,” she says. “We’re going to play ‘hide the pickle.’”
Cue wide eyes, confusion, nervous laughter.
“Is this like ‘hide the sausage’?” my brother asks.
My mother ignores him, explaining instead that “hide the pickle” is a Czech tradition—and the first of us to find the pickle ornament hidden within the Christmas tree will have the privilege of opening the first present.
I called bullshit on the story and hit the Web to find out more about this supposed “tradition.” According to Internet lore, “hide the pickle” is actually a German—not Czech—tradition. One version of the legend, frequently copied from the Internet and packaged with glass pickle ornaments sold in the United States, reads:
A very old Christmas eve tradition in Germany was to hide a pickle deep in the branches of the family Christmas Tree. The parents hung the pickle last after all the other ornaments were in place. In the morning they knew the most observant child would receive an extra gift from St. Nicholas. The first adult who finds the pickle traditionally gets good luck for the whole year.
A team of writers at About.com found several flaws in the legend. First, St. Nicholas visits German children on the fifth or sixth of December, not early Christmas morning. Second, German children open their presents on Christmas Eve, not on Christmas Day. “But the biggest problem with the German pickle tradition,” according to About.com, “is that no one in Germany seems to have ever heard of it.”
“Growing up in Germany, celebrating Christmas often at my sister’s house in Stuttgart, living then in the south in Freiburg, I never came across a pickle on a Christmas tree,” wrote one anonymous poster in an online forum. “This thing must have been hidden very well!”
There are two separate legends purporting to be the origin of the pickle tradition, according to B. Francis Morlan:
One is a family story of a Bavarian-born ancestor who fought in the American Civil War. A prisoner in poor health and starving, he begged a guard for just one pickle before he died. The guard took pity on him and found a pickle for him. The pickle by the grace of God gave him the mental and physical strength to live on.
The other […] is a medieval tale of two Spanish boys traveling home from boarding school for the holidays. When they stopped at an inn for the night, the innkeeper, a mean and evil man, stuffed the boys into a pickle barrel. That evening, St. Nicholas stopped at the same inn, became aware of the boys’ plight, tapped the pickle barrel with his staff, and the boys were magically freed.
Again, I called bullshit. A single pickle gave a prisoner the will to live? A pair of boys freed from a pickle barrel by Santa Claus? Puh-leaze.
Hiding the pickle, it turns out, is as German as German chocolate cake. It’s an American myth that has taken off fairly recently. In some areas of the United States, it’s blown up: Every December, the quaint Michigan township of Berrien Springs (population: 5,075) holds its annual Christmas Pickle Festival. “Be sure to attend the annual pickle parade led by the Grand Dillmeister!” the town’s official website proudly proclaims. Jimmy Fallon even played “hide the pickle” with actress Kirsten Dunst on his old late night talkshow. Many people see “hiding the pickle” as nothing more than a perverted hoax. On Cafepress, you can buy a t-shirt of a rather phallic vegetable adorned with a Santa Claus hat, emblazoned with the slogan, “I got your Christmas pickle right here!”
Who’s to blame for propagating the myth that “hiding the pickle” is an ancient German tradition? If you want to be cynical, you can point a finger at the burgeoning pickle ornament industry.
“Even families with many wonderful holiday traditions already in place can make room for this charming Christmas event that delights the old and the young alike,” the description for an “Old World” pickle ornament reads on Amazon. (The pickle, like most glass ornaments, is made in China.) One customer, who ordered two pickles from the Amazon seller, left this rather prickly review: “They arrived quickly, and very well packed; however you can see the lines where they were cast, which takes a lot away from the ornament. I suppose I expected more from an Old World Christmas ornament.”
I made a conscious decision not to venture further down the Internet rabbit hole in search of the “truth.” The ornament that my mother purchased was made in the Czech Republic, so it was significantly more “Old World” than the cheap imports from China for sale on Amazon. If I could accept a decorated tree (bastardized from a pagan tradition) and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (originally an advertising campaign for Montgomery Ward) as synonymous with Christmas, what right did I have to argue that a glass pickle was somehow in-apropros?
My family’s inaugural game of “hide the pickle” was a success. We all had a laugh at it, and the younger kids had fun hunting through the tree branches. We’ve hid the pickle every year since. You might even say it’s become a tradition.