By B. Francis Morlan
It is a quaint tradition that nobody wants to claim. And its story would not be the first tradition of Christmas born of a total fabrication. It is the little-known tradition of the Christmas pickle.
The Christmas pickle is not really a pickle at all. It is a pickle-shaped ornament that is the last one hung on the tree on Christmas Eve. The first child to find the Christmas pickle gets an extra gift from Saint Nicholas. Or so the so-called legend goes.
There are two other versions of the origins of the Christmas pickle. 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, perpetuated in Berrien Springs, MI, 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.
Berrien Springs calls itself the Christmas Pickle Capital of the World. They celebrate with an annual Christmas Pickle Festival held during the early part of December. A parade, led by the Grand Dillmeister who passes out fresh pickles along the parade route, is the featured event. You may even purchase the German glass pickle ornaments at the town’s museum.
Rumor and speculation place the origin of this tradition in Germany. However few in modern-day Germany recognize or have even heard of the Christmas pickle. Some in West Germany blame generations of East Germans who may have had nothing more than pickles to decorate their Christmas trees with after World War II. But even families and historians in East Germany shrug at the mention of the Christmas pickle tradition.
Regardless of where it came from, the Christmas tradition survives. Ornament manufacturers continue to make the specialty decoration and enjoy perpetuating the myth of its legendary origins -- false though they may be.