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The surprising story behind your family’s favorite Christmas pickle ornament

Here’s why the pickle ornament isn’t just a cute food trend.
This Christmas tree ornament is a big dill to many families.TODAY illustration / Amazon
/ Source: TODAY

Ever heard of the Christmas pickle?

It’s not just a shiny ornament but it actually represents a beloved tradition in many American households — including Craig Melvin’s.

How does it work? Sometime before Dec. 25, a glass pickle ornament is hidden within the branches of a Christmas tree. Then, the first child to find the pickle on Christmas morning gets a special treat — or they get to open the first gift.

The idea behind the tradition is to keep kids from rushing through the process of opening presents so they can learn to appreciate each gift.

The popular U.S. tradition is generally thought to be German, and there are explanations all over the Internet asserting as much.

But it turns out that might not really be the case.

In 2016, market research firm YouGov conducted a survey among German nationals and found that only 8% knew about the Christmas pickle tradition, and only 2% said they actually practice it.

Old World Christmas, a shop that sells traditional, mouth-blown glass ornaments (including quite a few pickle ornaments) prints the origin “story” of the pickle tradition in every ornament box.

According to a spokesperson for the company, the pickle ornament has been the company’s best-selling ornament for over 40 years.

The spokesperson added that company founder Tim Merck originally got his start importing ornaments being made in the town of Lausch, Germany, to the U.S. in the early 1980s. Merck himself wrote the company’s version of the pickle tradition, the spokesperson told, but it is unknown whether he heard it in Germany or if it was an entirely new tale he concocted.

Other places celebrate Christmas with pickles, too.

Barrien Springs, Michigan, used to hold a Christmas Pickle Festival in the 1990s, according to Dick Schinkel, one of the festival’s organizers and former president of the town’s historical society. But he said the town, which used to have many pickle farms and factories, really borrowed the idea from Old World Christmas.

However, since the town sold so many pickle ornaments, Pickle Packers International, the trade group for the pickle industry, dubbed Barrien Springs as the Christmas Pickle Capital of the World in the 1990s.

Silke-Maria Weineck, a professor of German Studies and Comparative Literature at the University of Michigan (who is originally from Germany) said that it doesn’t really sound like a German Christmas tradition to her.

“German Christmas traditions are pretty solemn,” she told, noting, however, that cultures vary widely throughout different parts of the country.

She added that even though most Germans don’t know about it, it is possible that hiding a pickle could have been popular in just one region of Germany.

“It could have been one immigrant family’s tradition, for all we know,” she said. “I could also imagine that we were originally dealing with an actual pickle prepared for the holidays. Americans are notoriously quick to claim something is ‘a tradition.’”

The website offers even more unique stories of how the tradition came to be, including one in which a Civil War soldier from Germany survived by eating a pickle in jail. Yet another legend claims that Saint Nicholas brought two boys back to life who were murdered and stuffed in a pickle barrel. That’s definitely a more solemn origin story.

The true meaning behind the pickle ornament may just have to remain a mystery for now, but that certainly shouldn’t stop plenty of families from enjoying the beloved tradition on Christmas Day.

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