Making a List and Checking it Twice

So we’re down to it, the last few days before Christmas. I’m not going to lie. I’m a little stressed, though in a good way. I want the holiday to produce warm, fuzzy memories for my children and the whole family as we gather together to celebrate. And it will, because the celebration is really in the gathering together.

But there’s definitely a certain image in my mind of how it will all go, observing just the right traditions, in a sparkling clean house that is only going to get covered in cast-off bows and scraps of wrapping paper. It’ll be perfect even if it’s not perfect, which it won’t be. I get all that. But I’m still running through my lists.

santa list
This guy gets it.

Because I am definitely a list maker. I’m one of those people who has several lists at once and then to keep track of them, makes a list of my lists. I’m the kind of person who, once I’ve accomplished a task that’s not included on my to-do list, writes it in, just for the pleasure of crossing it off. I think I may have a problem.

Actually, as a team of archaeologists working on a restoration project at a historic 17th century house in Kent, England discovered about a year ago, I might not be all that unusual. What they found under a floorboard in the attic was a shopping list, handwritten in October of 1633, by an obviously somewhat educated servant named Robert Draper. In it, he expresses the need for two dozen pewter spoons, greenfish (salted cod, allegedly), and a frying pan. The discovery is exciting because it’s a glimpse of the mundane stuff of life from the period, which is not always easily accessible information for historians.

It’s a bold list that includes instructions addressed to a Mr. Bilby asking him to send these items, along with some lights from the chamber of the lady of the house and a fire shovel from the nursery, to one of the family’s separate residences. I do tend to shy away from making lists for other people, unless specifically asked to, which occasionally I am, because I live with very non-list-making kinds of people who acknowledge that they sometimes forget things. And lists are handy.

That’s especially true if you’re Santa Claus and you’re tasked with remembering the gift requests of every child you’ll visit on Christmas Eve, and also whether or not they’ve been well behaved enough to deserve them. It sounds like a logistical nightmare to me.

santa cookies
No wonder the poor guy binges on cookies.

But Santa’s got it under control because he’s got a list that he checks twice. He’s had one since long before Eddie Cantor sang “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” in 1934, and even before 1633 when Robert Draper reminded Mr. Bilby not to forget the light bulbs.

It’s true that the American Santa Claus as we know him today comes partially from the stories of the 4th century bishop known as Saint Nicholas, but the character also descends from a more pagan influence, particularly from Nordic folktales that arose in the Middle Ages.

The jolly fat man in a red coat, designed in the late 19th century by artist Thomas Nast, bears a striking resemblance to descriptions of Thor. And the behavior of the dear old saint as reported by Clement Moore is reminiscent of Odin flying through the air on an eight legged horse, delivering gifts through chimneys. With him are two ravens, his constant companions that listen at the chimneys and report on whether the occupants of the home have been naughty or nice.

raven
A harbinger of death, and yet still less creepy than the elf on the shelf.

As Santa evolved the eight legged horse became eight reindeer and the eavesdropping ravens became a master list and, in the last few years, a super creepy elf on the shelf. Frankly, I think Santa should have kept the ravens.

I think it’s safe to assume the jolly old elf is a little stressed out with just a few days remaining before the biggest night of his year. He might even check his list more than twice. And then make lists of his lists, and add to each of them as he goes. Because he wants to make sure the holiday is merry and bright, and he’s probably afraid he’ll forget the lightbulbs. 

Nothing Says Christmas like an Excess of Pickles

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.

christmas-pickle
If I owed my life to a pickle, I would definitely hang one on my Christmas tree.

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?”

larry-and-bob
I didn’t have the heart to tell her I already had a cucumber on my tree.

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.

chicken-sandwich
I wonder how many Chick-fil-A sandwiches I’d have to eat to meet my pickle quota.

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?