What's the big dill? A Christmas Pickle Tradition Origin Story

christmas pickle, pickle ornament -

What's the big dill? A Christmas Pickle Tradition Origin Story

Christmas morning is full of traditions and rituals for kids and adults alike.  Some traditions are unique to each family: A football game, watching a particular Christmas movie for the hundredth time, or preparing a breakfast spread that is made the same way each and every year.  Other traditions are more of a shared experience: Kids waking up early and rushing downstairs, seeing what St. Nicholas left in your stocking, or search for that famed Christmas Pickle ornament on the tree.  After all, the first person to nab that Christmas dill gets an extra present.  The Christmas Pickle hunt was always a lot of fun for our family.  It started the morning off with some excitement, some ‘sometimes’ friendly competition and a bit of old-world tradition.

Many of us know about that old German tradition of finding the hidden Christmas Pickle ornament.  However, how many have any idea where this tradition came from?  Well, unfortunately (spoiler alert), the simple answer is we just do not really know.  There are two stories that come up again and again regarding possible origins to the holiday pickle.

The first story, ironically enough, puts us in America during the civil war.  Camp Sumter, the largest and one of the most infamous and deadliest prisons of the civil war, to be exact.  During the civil war over 45,000 Union soldiers were imprisoned at Camp Sumter.  Of those 45,000 soldiers imprisoned there, over 13,000 would eventually perish.  So, the perfect place for a beloved Christmas Tradition to be born!  As the story goes, a Private John C. had enlisted in the 103rd Pennsylvania Infantry and in 1864 was compared and taken to the Camp Sumter prison.  Overcrowding and supply line issues had caused severe shortages of food and supplies for the inmates.  On Christmas Eve, having been on the verge of starving to death, Private John C. asked one of the guards for a pickle.  The guard obliged and the pickle provided the Private with enough sustenance to make it through his ordeal.  Later, the bavarian-born Private returned home and began a tradition every Christmas Eve of hiding a pickle on their Christmas tree, commemorating the pickle that once saved his life.

The second story involves two Spanish boys who were traveling home to be with their families for the holidays. They decided to stop at a nearby Inn to rest for the night before they continued their journey home.  Unfortunately the innkeeper, an evil man, either captured or disposed (depending on which source you choose) of the two boys and placed them into a pickle barrel.  Eventually, St. Nicholas stopped at the very same inn and after discovering the innkeepers secret, freed/brought back to life the two boys.

The good news is that it is most probable that neither of these stories are accurate, or at least not the origin of the Christmas Pickle ornament tradition.  In all likelihood, it was a simple ornament salesman with too many glass pickle ornaments to sell that invited and pushed this ‘German tradition’.  In the 1880’s the Woolworth's department store became the first store to start importing glass fruit & vegetable shaped ornaments from Germany.  In a major coincidence, this is roughly the same time period where the German tradition started circulating many American households.  The tradition, despite being debunked with our friends from across the pond, American families took to the story and the tradition and started hanging a glass Pickle ornament on the Christmas tree every Christmas eve.  

Despite its dubious origins, many families still celebrate this tradition every year with their children.  It continues to be passed down generation after generation.  Which only leaves one question: Where can I buy a Christmas pickle ornament?

Image: "Pickle Ornaments" by Sam Howzit is licensed under CC BY 2.0.