We can see it now! A towering tree sparkling with shiny baubles and twinkling lights and dreamy angels and… Christmas pickles?
Ornaments come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, but a pickle on a Christmas tree? Fermented vegetables aren’t necessarily the first thing that comes to mind when we think of festive decorations. So what’s the dill, exactly, with this quirky holiday celebration?
The Origin (Maybe) of the Christmas Pickle!
It turns out that the Christmas pickle story is tied to multiple countries, and surrounded by all sorts of legends and myths. The most popular story by far hails from Germany, where they use the term Weihnachtsgurke, which literally translates to Christmas Eve Cucumber (how cool is that?). The holiday tradition involves hanging an ornamental pickle on the tree the night before Christmas, and the first person to find it on Christmas morning receives an extra present from Santa Claus along with a year of good luck.
But although this is the story you’ll probably find front and center on the packaging of Christmas pickle ornaments, it’s not actually a thing in Germany itself. We’ll always have Weihnachtsgurke though.
The Pickle Takes on America!
While not quite as romantic a tale, the pickle tradition more likely emerged as part of a marketing initiative at Woolworths. During the 1880’s, the pioneering five-and-dime store began importing all sorts of glass Christmas ornaments from Germany, and yes, it seems that vegetables were in the mix. Due to straggling sales, they realized they needed to throw their weight behind pickles… perhaps because customers weren’t really drawn to the idea of putting a green decoration on a green tree, or brined produce didn’t exactly scream festive holiday fun (an opinion, by the way, that we certainly don’t share. Hello, Holiday Pickle Dill-Lights!)
So authentic German tradition or mere marketing push? The town of Berrien Springs in Michigan has a darker twist to the tale. They’ve run with the Victorian-era legend of two Spanish children being murdered by an innkeeper, who hid their bodies in a pickle barrel. St. Nick tapped the barrel with his cane and brought the kids back to life, and thus, the Christmas pickle tradition was born! Damn, Michigan.
Presenting The Christmas Pickle Capital of the World!
Brine-chilling as it is, this piece of pickle history sure has worked for Berrien Springs, which happens to be flush with cucumber farmers and pickle producers. From 1992 to 2003, they actually held an annual Christmas Pickle Parade led by a Grand Dillmeister, that was capped off by Santa Claus handing out fresh pickles instead of candy or presents. Now that’s our kind of Kris Kringle! The town has since come to be known as the Christmas Pickle Capital of the World. How’s that for a savvy marketing scheme, Woolworths?
The ironic thing is, the excitement around Christmas pickles in America actually has increased the sales of pickle ornaments in Germany, and led to a wider spread adoption of the custom. And that’s what we marketers like to call social proof.