What’s the real story behind the Christmas pickle ornament?

A pickle seems like an odd thing to make into an ornament, yet you’ve probably seen glass pickle ornaments in Christmas markets or hanging from a friend’s Christmas tree.

Those familiar with the odd decoration know that it’s always the last ornament to be hung on the tree on Christmas Eve, and the first child to find it on Christmas morning is usually rewarded with one of three things: the privilege of opening the first gift, receiving an extra gift or being granted a year of good luck. 

But perhaps even weirder than the custom itself is the fact that no one seems to have any idea where it originated. Everyone has their theories, of course, but none of them seems to hold water.  

The pickle ornament, also known as Die Weihnachtsgurke, always come with a brief summation of its supposed legend and tradition. You’ll find it on Crate & Barrel’s website, for example, with this description:

“An age-old German good luck emblem, this realistic, hand-painted glass ornament adds a touch of legend and humor to holiday decorating. According to tradition, the first child to find the pickle ornament, which parents hide deep within the trees boughs, gets an extra gift from St. Nick.”

While many believe it originated in Germany, very few Germans have ever even heard of the Christmas pickle.

According to one tale, a Bavarian emigrant named John Lower started the tradition after he fell ill while imprisoned in Andersonville, Ga., during the Civil War. When he pleaded to just have one pickle before he died, a guard took pity on him and found him one. Legend has it he recovered soon after and returned home, where he instituted the tradition in remembrance of his good fortune. The person who found the pickle on Christmas Day would be blessed with good fortune just as he had. 

One of the curious shortcomings in this theory is that German glass ornaments didn’t become popular in the United States until F.W. Woolworth began importing them around 1880, 15 years after the Civil War ended. For the legend to be true, Lower would have had to have been hiding real pickles in his tree. 

Another theory takes us to Berrien Springs, Mich., the self-proclaimed Christmas Pickle Capital of the World. According to this Southwest Michigan town, it all started in the Middle Ages, when a cruel innkeeper trapped two Spanish boys in a pickle barrel on their home from boarding school for Christmas break. As the story goes, St. Nick rescued them by tapping on the barrel with his staff. 

Whatever theory you choose to believe, all of the traditions related to the Christmas pickle manage to accomplish one thing, whether intentionally or unintentionally: They give children a reason to savor the moment with family and enjoy the beauty of the decorated tree instead of rushing to unwrap the gifts beneath it. 

Its origins may always be a mystery, but the Christmas pickle is a sweet tradition to add to the fun of Christmas morning — and, surprisingly, it’s not a bad-looking ornament either. If you’re interested in buying one, you can find them through Pier 1 Imports, Crate & Barrel, Sur La Table and plenty of online retailers.