You probably have one hanging on your tree right now, but do you know why?
My 9-year-old brother has pushed the presents out from under our Christmas tree and is lying on his back peering up through the pine needles. My 10-year-old sister is up on her tip-toes, precariously perched on the armrest of the couch, holding the wall for balance and squinting at the tree. Every so often they shift position and call out, “Is that it!?” before settling back into their search, disappointed.
They’re looking for a pickle. A pickle ornament, to be exact.
“The Pickle Game” has been a tradition in my family for as long as I can remember. We’ve hung the same glass pickle-shaped ornament on our tree since before I was born. (Well, okay, it’s the second pickle to grace our tree. One year my hungry baby sister took a bite out of it and we had to get a new one).
The premise of the game is simple: It’s hide and seek for the pickle ornament. One person hides the pickle somewhere amid all the other ornaments on the Christmas tree?—?the best spots are deep within the branches?—?and everyone else races to find it.
According to the explanatory tags tied to pickle ornaments in stores, it’s a German tradition. Marketing copy tells us parents hide the pickle ornament on Christmas Eve and the first child to find it on Christmas morning gets an extra present from St. Nikolaus.
This is the origin story I was told, which I never questioned. (Except we never got an extra present as a prize. What gives, Mom and Dad?!) After all, we call my Grandmother “Oma” and always have sauerkraut at our family meals, so why not have a German pickle ornament hanging on our tree?
But last week, when I was discussing my holiday plans with coworkers, I mentioned offhandedly that I was excited to play the pickle game. They responded with blank stares. I explained the game, but it was clear they’d never heard of it. Since my family is known for some odd traditions involving cow bells and playing cards, I started to question whether the pickle game was actually a tradition at all or if I’d been bamboozled by my family all along. I launched an investigation.
Is this actually a thing?
To start my pickle research, I dug into the German-born Hoffman side of my family, starting with my mom. She told me she remembers having a pickle ornament on their tree when she was in middle school, but there was no Christmas-morning race to see who’d be the first to locate it.
When I called my Oma to get more details on the story, she told me she hadn’t heard about pickle ornaments until about 20 years ago, when she bought her first one in the quaint Bavarian-inspired (and Christmas-obsessed) town of Frankenmuth, Michigan. Now, she is going on 76, so her memory back of the 1980s may not be completely reliable, but there was clearly some conflicting information.
I climbed deeper into my family tree, consulting my cousin Rachel. Rachel remembers playing the pickle game with her sisters, like all my cousins do, but she also has the unique insight of having lived with a family in Germany as an au pair. She said that her host family also had a pickle ornament and the children searched for it on Christmas Eve before opening up their gifts, the same way we did.
So based on preliminary research, the German origin story indeed held some weight.
But where did it come from?
Next, I moved to outside research. The consensus of online message boards, from Reddit to German language teacher forums, didn’t provide much clarity. Some users claimed the pickle ornament was a thriving tradition and other, “very German” families had never heard of it.
My research uncovered the village of Berrien Springs, Michigan, aka the Christmas Pickle Capital of the World. Until 2003, the village held an annual Christmas Pickle Festival in early December, complete with a parade led by the “Grand Dillmeister” himself.
This much was clear: The tradition definitely exists outside of my own family. I was satisfied, but I wasn’t finished. Now I was curious: Where exactly did this tradition come from?
With a bit of Googling I uncovered three wildly different origin stories:
- A shipment of glass ornaments in various food shapes was shipped to the US from a small glass-blowing community in Germany. Most varieties sold well, but not the pickles, so the vendor made up an interesting tradition (an extra present for the pickle-finding child) so he could sell off all the ornaments.
- A prisoner of the US Civil War was jailed, starving and near death. One Christmas Eve, he begged the guard for a pickle and that one pitiful dill gave him the strength to live until his release. When the soldier was reunited with his family, they hung a pickle on their Christmas tree every year to remember what brought them all together again.
- Two Spanish brothers were traveling home from boarding school for the holidays. When they stopped at an inn for the night, they were killed by the evil innkeeper and stuffed into a pickle barrel. That night, when Santa visited the inn, he magically brought the boys back to life and freed them from the barrel.
All the stories contradict each other, and in only one of them is the connection to Germany explicit. But whether any of them are true or not, the fact remains that plenty of families (largely of German origin living in the American Midwest) have pickle ornaments hanging on their trees.
The tradition continues
When I talked to my siblings, they pointed out other functions of the pickle game besides the obvious one: preserving family traditions.
“It’s fun because you notice all the ornaments you wouldn’t normally take the time to enjoy because you’re scanning the tree, looking for the pickle,” my sister told me as she looked up at our glittering tree. “It brings back good childhood memories. And, of course, you get bragging rights if you find the pickle first.”
And it’s true. My brother regularly points out his favorite Noah’s Ark figurine and the glitter-and-paper-plate angel he made in kindergarten. My sister cherishes her golden macaroni star and I love to compare my now-size-10 feet to the two-inch newborn booties my mom crocheted for me. And, of course, we’re all ready to dethrone my dad, the reigning Pickle-Finding King for three years running.
Whether the pickle game is an old German tradition or not doesn’t really matter. It’s still our tradition. This year I bought a glass-blown pickle ornament to hang on my own tree at Chicago’s cozy Christkindlmarket (the German connection lives on!). And in the meantime, we’ll just have to keep searching for the true origin of the pickle ornament buried deep in the branches of Christmas tradition.