What Is the Christmas Pickle? The History Behind This Unique Tradition

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What's the big dill with the Christmas pickle?

One of the quirkiest (but best!) Christmas Eve traditions of all time is the Christmas pickle. After all, what is Christmas without hiding a deli delicacy in your tree? Cult followers of the Christmas pickle would tell you it’s no holiday at all—and we would have to agree.

The Christmas pickle is one of the lesser-known Christmas traditions and certainly one of the most unusual Christmas symbols; it doesn’t conjure images of candy canes or holiday lattes. But hiding and then finding the Christmas pickle is a beloved (and competitive) part of Christmas for many.

Is it a real pickle? Is the tradition really German? And what do you win for finding it?

If the thought of hiding a Christmas pickle in your tree has you questioning, well, everything, read on to find out why so many people relish this tradition. (And if you find yourself without a Christmas cornichon this year—what a pickle!—you can try these other Christmas tree ideas instead.)

What is the Christmas pickle tradition?

First of all, it’s important to know that the Christmas pickle isn’t a real pickle, but an ornament! On Christmas Eve, the pickle ornament gets hidden somewhere in the Christmas tree. Because it’s dark green, it blends right in with the branches and is hard to spot. On Christmas morning, it’s a race to find the pickle. Part of the challenge is remembering to look for it, and the other part is actually finding it among all the other lights, baubles and DIY Christmas decorations.

Some versions of the tradition hold that the first person to find the Christmas pickle gets good luck, or even an extra present. But more important, in every version of the tradition, the winner gets bragging rights for the rest of the year.

The Christmas pickle is a family tradition, which means it isn’t limited to just kids. And even though it turns out that its supposedly German roots are actually a myth, it’s still largely popular with families with German heritage and in areas with German influence, like the Midwest.

Where did the Christmas pickle tradition come from?

Popularly held belief says that the Christmas pickle ornament is an old-fashioned German tradition, passed down through generations. But in a 2016 survey, fewer than 10% of German respondents had ever even heard of the Christmas pickle, much less ever owned one (91% answered nein to familiarity with the pickle, with only 7% affirming ja). Ironically, the Christmas pickle has actually started to catch on in Germany in more recent years—as a funny American tradition.

So where did the tradition actually start? Nobody is sure. There are apocryphal tales of a dying Civil War soldier asking his captors for one final pickle, which, once eaten, miraculously sustained him until his release. In gratitude, the soldier reportedly hung a pickle on his tree every year afterward.

Another tale involves two young boys who were murdered by an evil innkeeper, their bodies stashed in a pickle barrel until Saint Nicholas himself arrived and resurrected them. Although the holiday connection is there via good St. Nick, this one doesn’t explain the leap from pickles as a vinegary snack to a Christmas decoration idea.

Neither of these seem particularly likely to be the real origin of the beloved briny tradition. The most plausible explanation actually originates with American department stores. Germany is well known for its glass ornaments, which were all the rage in the 1880s. Woolworth’s imported a large number of German ornaments to sell, shaped like fruits and vegetables—including a pickle. The popularity of the pickle ornament and its association with Germany probably began there, possibly embellished by salesmen spinning tales of the ornament having its origins in old-world Germany.

But even though the Christmas pickle may not be a Christmas tradition from around the world, it’s still a barrel (a jar?) of fun.

Where can you get a Christmas pickle ornament?

You can get a Christmas pickle ornament—and Christmas-pickle-themed goods—easily online. Amazon sells several variations of the classic dark-green pickle ornament. These work best for actually hiding in the tree, because they are no-frills and blend in the most. On Etsy, you can find hand-carved wooden pickles, stained-glass pickles and even a Christmas-pickle-scented candle! These are fun spins on the tradition that can extend the dill-themed decor throughout your house.

If you’re crafty, you could even try making a DIY Christmas ornament shaped like a pickle—just be sure not to use any actual food, or else you’ll quickly have more than one pickle on your hands!

Next, read up on how to decorate for the holidays according to your zodiac.

Sources: 

  • USA Today: “What’s a Christmas pickle? The tradition you haven’t heard of but will want to start now”
  • The German Way: “The Christmas Pickle Ornament”

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Sarah Vincent
Sarah Vincent is an assistant editor for Reader’s Digest, covering digital lifestyle stories. She has also worked as a culture journalist, and you can find her published in America, National Catholic Reporter and Sojourners. In her free time, she loves crafting, cooking, traveling and learning (or forgetting!) Japanese.