Christmas pickles

It’s the time of year during which everyone follows some kind of tradition or rituals, whether it be conscious or not. Depending on which country you’re in, seasonal activities may include several (or all) of the following activities:

  • the ritual Christmas shopping rush
  • the Christmas party at work
  • putting up an advent calendar
  • lighting candles on an Adventskranz
  • decorating the tree and maybe the entire house
  • baking biscuits/cookies
  • putting up lights

… etc.

So far so hectic stressful good.

Having a somewhat difficult relationship with these types of activities myself, however (I am always to late with things and frequently only get stuff ready at the very last minute – I was going to post this earlier but had to wrap the presents, the last of which I got this morning…), I’ve often wondered about them: where do such traditions come from, anyway? Who thought them up? And – most importantly – why do we seem to completely forget the origin of many (or most?) of our traditions?

Two Christmas carols traditionally sung in Germany use melodies that go with very different lyrics (and are sung for very different occasions!) in other countries:

O Tannenbaum
Morgen kommt der Weihnachtsmann

Ok, maybe melodies are not the best example. So then maybe look at these two photos and tell me which one is the Hefezopf, which is traditionally made in Germany, Austria and some areas of Switzerland for (get this) the central feast in the Christian liturgical year, and which one is the Challah:

And it’s said that the traditional German Adventskranz goes back to the 19th century, when it was “invented” by a guy called Johann Hinrich Wichern, the founder of an orphanage and (still existing – I know because I went there!) school in Hamburg. I don’t know whether this is true – but in any case, I’m pretty sure Wichern may have put together some existing traditions. Hanukkah lights anyone?

It’s fun to see how one tradition inspires another. But the innocent joy of observing such influences is lost when seeing how unaware many (or even most?) Germans are of many of “their” customs going back to Jewish traditions. It’s important that we stop and ask ourselves why we do certain things. It helps to remember, and it makes us aware that pretty much all we do is part of something bigger.

And then there’s the Christmas Pickle.

Translated from Wikipedia (as you’ve noticed, I’m relying heavily on Wikipedia for this post):

A Christmas Pickle is a glass Christmas tree ornament shaped like a pickle. Hiding a Christmas Pickle in the tree is a tradition in the United States. The pickle is somewhat hard to find due to its green colour. Whoever finds the Christmas Pickle in the tree receives an additional present.[…]

The origin of this custom is unclear. In the US it is said that it is an old German custom. However, the custom is unknown in most German-speaking regions. It is unclear whether the Christmas Pickles that can be found in some German-speaking places can be traced back to a local tradition or whether they are based on taking over this custom from the US.

Until this morning, when they talked about this on the radio, I had never heard of a „Christmas Pickle”. I checked with my mother: she hadn’t either, and she emphatically added that she had never seen a glass ornament shaped like a pickle on any of the many Christmas markets she had visited on her annual trip with friends either (among which were the markets in Munich, Salzburg, Oldendorf, Cologne, to name a few).

But who knows, maybe give it a few years and we’ll have a pickle in our tree. I’ll be watching this pickle thing in any case.

Until then: Merry Christmas or whatever you’re into!

About steffi suhr

Once upon a time, I was an enthusiastic and hopeful biological oceanographer who did a bunch of work in the Antarctic. I was alternately wearing labcoats or extreme weather clothing and hard hats, but have long since swapped survival suits for dress suits and do science management, currently as the BioMedBridges project manager at the European Bioinformatics Institute. I still like to use my brain. I'm a German serial expat, currently - again - living in the UK.
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9 Responses to Christmas pickles

  1. cromercrox says:

    Most of my Jewish friends have a Christmas Tree Chanukah Bush, deocrated with lights. This is a very ancient tradition which I started in about 2002, commemorating the whole business of Moses and the Burning Bush. Who’s to say I’m wrong?

  2. steffi suhr says:

    Excellent – I am all for mixing and matching. Being an American-German family, we get to open presents tonight *and* tomorrow morning 🙂

    • We did that the last few years, on a similar Anglo-German basis, but this year we are reverting to a sole present-fest tomorrow morning. Well, not sole, actually, as there is a separate one with my brother’s family tomorrow afternoon before the Christmas dinner.

      And we’ve had (traditionally Mitteleuropaisch) fish for dinner tonight…. though as it was battered and fried, and served with chips, not so very Deutsch Katholisch. I think maybe we’ll have to claim the fry-up is a nod to the Scottish origins of the name Elliott.

      • steffi suhr says:

        “The Elliotts, with the Armstrongs, were the most troublesome of the great Scottish Border families in the Middle Ages.”


        My family eats goose (stuffed with apples and raisins) for Christmas. Being a veggie myself, I just eat the side dishes…

    • steffi suhr says:

      Right. Who would hang a stinking pickle into their tree, anyway?… (Not that my son didn’t want to do it right away when it came up yesterday – after I got the pickle out for the photo…)

  3. ricardipus says:

    Never have I heard of a Christmas Pickle, but my heritage is neither (a) German, nor (b) American of the U.S. persuasion.

    Sounds kinda fun though.

    If you need someone to taste-test between the Hefezopf and the Challah, let me know. Both look delicious and I will be up late, figuratively wearing my Santa hat as it were.

    Merry Christmas right back at you, and I’ll throw in best wishes for 2012 as well. 🙂

  4. chall says:

    God Jul! 🙂

    I recognize the Adventskranz – although we call it Adventsljustake and the main difference from the “other tradition” would be that it is generally 5 lghts (or the 4 candle version you light one for each advent Sunday – but that is another ljusstake…. Did I mention we Swedes have some confusing traditions? 😉 )

    Never heard of the pickle either, although since I’m neither German nor US (like Ricardipus) I guess that is all in order.

    Lots of wishes that the holidays are holidays and off work and relaxing 🙂

  5. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    I’ve never heard of a Christmas Pickle, although my sister-in-law did once get me a plastic pickle that yodels when you pressed a button as part of my Christmas present!

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