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O Holy Brine: The Strange, Joyous Legend of the Christmas Pickle

Many years ago, someone—possibly German?—decided to put a pickle ornament on a Christmas tree, and a tradition of sorts was born. Here’s why the Christmas pickle is worth preserving.

Ringer illustration

“Do you know that some people have an ornament on their tree that is a … Christmas pickle?” Hoda Kotb asked the Today show audience in December. “Apparently it’s in a lot of peoples’ homes, and we’re not making fun of it,” added Kathie Lee Gifford, her tone of voice and facial expression strongly suggesting she would love to make fun of it. The two hosts ignored their pinot grigio to hunt for the Christmas pickle ornament hidden on the show’s Christmas tree, noting that whoever finds the pickle first traditionally receives an extra gift. Neither woman appeared particularly enthusiastic about the segment, which is too bad, because the Christmas pickle rules.

The ornament, usually a curved aluminum tube painted green and coated in sparkles, is going mainstream, enticing families with its glittery cucumiform warts from coast to coast with increasing frequency. “My family does the pickle thing,” Ringer writer Molly McHugh, who grew up in Oregon, noted. “We’ve been doing it as far back as I can remember, from when I was a little kid. I never got a real explanation. When I got to be old enough to recognize the absurdity of it I asked basically every year why this was a thing,” Andrew Nichols, who grew up in Westchester, New York, said. “I always got some variant of ‘It’s tradition’ or ‘Because it’s the Christmas pickle!’ Still don’t know the origins, but at this point I’ve just embraced the silliness of it.” Amazon, Target, Walmart, Etsy, Crate and Barrel, Bed Bath & Beyond, Pier 1, and Sur la Table all sell versions of a Christmas pickle ornament. Hallmark’s current offering is topped with a hat instructing revelers to “Find Me.” Petco sells a version for cats. A slew of children’s books about the Christmas pickle have been published in the past few years, including The Legend of the Christmas Pickle and No Way?! How Pickles Became the Christmas Gherkin.

Despite its growing popularity, the Christmas pickle has a confusing origin story, one even Christmas experts aren’t sure about. “Unfortunately I don’t think I can be of much help on this topic,” historian Bruce Forbes, who wrote Christmas: A Candid History, told The Ringer. “It did not come up in my earlier work.” The town of Berrien Springs, Michigan, used to have an annual Christmas pickle festival, earning itself the nickname “Christmas pickle capital of the world.” However, the town council did not respond to requests to learn more about how the whole thing got started, only noting that Berrien Springs no longer focuses on pickles. “We have not had a Christmas Pickle Festival in over 13 years,” was the response The Ringer received from the council’s email. The ornaments often come packaged with materials suggesting German roots—sometimes it is referred to as “the Weihnachtsgurke”—and many Christmas pickle–havers I’ve spoken with have had a vague understanding that it was a German tradition. “I never got an explanation beyond ‘It’s a German thing,’” Dan Suitor, who grew up in New Hampshire, said.

“My wife and I both come from families that did it on both sides, but it seemed German was the only common ancestral origin. It was usually a game where the first kid to find the pickle won something,” Wisconsin-raised Chris Brzinski told The Ringer. “It’s only now as an adult that I have perspective on how truly disturbing it was for old people to invite children to their homes and ask them to find the hidden pickle.”

Photo courtesy Dan Suitor

While hiding a pickle on a tree and giggling with mirth while children search for it certainly seems like it could’ve been an ancient Bavarian solstice ritual, there’s not much actual evidence supporting the legend. According to a 2016 survey, only 2 percent of German respondents put a pickle on their tree, and 91 percent had no familiarity with the tradition. One Hamburg-based newspaper covered the trend in 2013 as something Americans inexplicably believed to be German, noting one legend about its origins: as the story goes, John Lower, a Bavarian soldier fighting in the American Civil War, started the trend by tying a pickle to his Christmas tree because he believed that eating a pickle helped him recover from wounds suffered in battle.

None of the Germans I asked about the Christmas pickle had any knowledge of the ornament as a local custom. “I was not aware of this until now. A quick search on German Google brings up a bunch of articles that all have the same to say: It’s an American phenomenon that almost no one in Germany has heard of, but that is rumored to have roots in southern Germany (and if so has been largely forgotten here). It starts getting traction in Germany recently, as many American things do. Whether that is a cultural re-import or just plainly a U.S. invention that is spreading here slowly can’t really be determined,” Markus Gilles, who lives in Berlin, said. “I would assume that you’ll have a hard time finding anyone who can confirm that this has been part of their family’s X-mas tradition for generations.”

“In my family or any families I know, no one is hanging pickles in their trees,” Tobias Steber, who lives in Munich, said.

“A pickle?! Like the cucumber? Haha, I have never heard of that in my life,” Hendrik Jasnoch, who lives near Hamburg, told The Ringer. “Christmas tree ornaments are a big thing here, though, and lot of handmade stuff is sold on Christmas markets. But I have never heard of or seen anybody put a pickle on a tree?! That seems a weird/random ornament choice.”

The most plausible explanation: it appears to be a German-flavored American invention. “I work at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago,” Jonathan Barnes told The Ringer. “We host Christmas Around the World with trees decorated by various international organizations. When I discovered the German tree here did not have a pickle, I was told that this was an American tradition created by German immigrants and was not authentically German.” (This explains why the only person currently in Germany I found with a pickle ornament on his Christmas tree is Jacob Schickler, an American living in Berlin.)

But the Christmas pickle’s faux-folkloric background is no reason to cast it aside. If anything, its nonsensical origins make it even more appropriate to adorn the festooned evergreen trees that have come to symbolize a holiday celebrating events that happened in the Middle East. Modern Christmas customs are already a hodgepodge of unconnected rituals Frankenstein’d awkwardly together, like the yule log from the Scandinavian solstice, Santa Claus coming from the Dutch Sinterklaas, and Elf on a Shelf presumably emerging from Hell. Adding a fake German gherkin into the mix only increases whimsy. The holiday season can waver between “wonderful” and “ravaging stress vortex fueled by familial discord and regret,” and the goofy pickle tilts the situation toward the wonderful. The literal shiny distraction is a reminder that things don’t always need to make sense to spread joy.