In April of 1864, during the American Civil War, Private John C. Lower of the 103rd Pennsylvania Infantry, was captured and taken to a Confederate prison camp. There, after many months of captivity, he found himself on Christmas Eve, hungry, weak, and knocking on death’s door. He begged for help, appealing to the mercy of a guard who took pity on him and gave him a pickle.
It was this pickle that Private Lower later credited with the saving of his life, and when he finally returned home, he began a curious holiday tradition with his family. Whether Lower survived because the kindness of the prison camp guard infused him with hope for humanity, or because the slug of seven whole much needed calories provided him the energy to live on, no one can say for sure.
Pickles have long been considered to provide good health and vitality, and have been relied upon by military leaders dating back as far as Julius Caesar, to give their soldiers a much needed kick. Still, it seems likely that Lower’s story is entirely made up to explain the long-standing tradition of the Christmas pickle.
Never heard of it?
Neither had I, but apparently it’s been an American tradition since at least 1890 (or 1865, in the Lower household). Before that it was a “time honored German tradition.” The trouble with that theory, of course, is that most Germans haven’t heard of it either.
The idea is that parents hide a pickle ornament somewhere on the tree on Christmas Eve, and in the morning, the first child to spot it wins a small prize or receives a special blessing for the year to come, or earns the right to open the first present.
Okay, so it’s a little bit charming. And for the purposes of this blog post, I went on a pickle-finding adventure of my own. I searched several stores, asking employees if they had traditional Christmas pickle ornaments. Most of them looked at me with mystified expressions full of barely masked pity. Only one knew what I was talking about, though her store did not carry them. A surprised employee in the store where I finally had success, said, “Well, I think we had some cucumbers. Or maybe they were pickles?”
They were. And I bought one. Because even if it isn’t an age-old German Christmas tradition, we Americans sure do love our pickles. More than half of the cucumbers we grow eventually become pickles. That’s twenty-six billion of them per year. And each of us allegedly eats an average of nine pounds of them per year, which means someone out there is eating an awful lot of pickles to balance out my somewhat less than nine pound contribution.
But there’s still the question of how they ended up on our Christmas trees. There are a couple theories other than the one involving Private Lower, including one that suggests the source is a miracle of St. Nicholas in which he resurrected two murdered boys who’d been sealed into a pickle barrel by an innkeeper (securing his place on the naughty list). There are lots of variations of that story, though, and most don’t involve pickles at all. Also, it’s pretty awful and not very Christmas-y.
The theory that I find most believable, is that in 1890, F.W. Woolworth began importing Christmas ornaments from a German glass factory, many of them in the shapes of fruits. Some of them were pickles (and, yes, cucumbers, and therefore pickles, are fruits…ask a botanist). While the pomegranates and pears sold fairly well, for some reason, the pickles didn’t strike most people as particularly Christmas-y. And so a German custom was born, right there in an American five-and-dime.
It turns out this long standing Christmas tradition that few of us have actually heard of, may really stem from a marketing campaign and an excess of glass pickles, the most non-Christmas-y fruit imaginable. But, it’s kind of fun and weird. So, why not?