In Berrien Springs, Michigan, some Christmas trees have something to hide. Decked out in tinsel, string lights, and ornaments, they don’t appear out of the ordinary. But a closer look might reveal a shimmering emerald vegetable hiding betwixt the evergreen branches. Make no mistake, you’ve spotted a Weihnachtsgurke, or a Christmas pickle.
As per the (supposedly) German tradition, the first child to track down the pickle ornament is awarded an extra gift, the liberty of opening the first present, or sometimes, cold, hard cash. Popular in parts of the Midwestern United States, pickle hunting on Christmas morning is an annual holiday ritual. The true origin of the tradition, however, is a mystery. Though its roots are allegedly German, the vast majority of Germans have never even heard of the practice. So, if not the Germans, who were the original harbingers of hidden Christmas pickles?
According to one legend, a Bavarian soldier by the name of John Lower started the tradition. While fighting in the American Civil War, Lower was captured, and became deathly ill in a Confederate prison camp in Georgia. When he begged his captors for food, a merciful guard gifted him a pickle. Apparently, he survived, and hung a pickle in his Christmas trees as a token of remembrance.
A simpler story claims poor folks in Germany once hung them up in lieu of other ornaments. Meanwhile, the legend preferred by those in Berrien Springs traces it back to two children who were nearly pickled to death, but saved, at the last minute, by St. Nicholas.
Unfortunately, the most likely explanation is that it was all a marketing ploy. In the late 19th century, Woolworth’s began importing ornaments and decorations from Germany, and the legend helped sell what would otherwise be a somewhat random veggie ornament. Centuries later, however, both pickle and legend live on, and you can see the occasional Weihnachtsgurke in trees across the Midwest and even parts of Germany—that is, of course, if you look hard enough.