An American ad for a “German tree trimming tradition” – the glass pickle ornament. Photo © H. Flippo
Today’s fat Sunday newspaper brought me a reminder about an article I first wrote back in 2003 about the so-called German tradition known as the glass pickle Christmas tree ornament, aka die Weihnachtsgurke. Today my wife pointed out an ad (see above) for “glass pickle ornaments” in one of the numerous Christmastime ad inserts. The ad makes it sound like every German household knows about this “German tree trimming tradition.” But in many years of asking Germans about this Christmas tradition, not one has ever heard of it. In the five years since the article I originally wrote for my old About.com site, it has become even more obvious that this “German tradition” is actually something invented to sell Christmas ornaments.
The irony is that in the years since I first tried to debunk this myth, more and more Americans have come to believe in it, and the legend has now returned to Germany from the USA! You can now buy these glass pickle ornaments in Germany, for crying out loud. The old saying (not said by Mark Twain) applies: “A lie can travel halfway round the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.”
In a new ad-inspired cursory Google search of the German web, all I could find were Germans making amused remarks about this custom they had never heard of, along with a few references to my own article. There is now even a German Wikipedia entry for “Weihnachtsgurke” that dismisses the tradition as American (and references my article). There is nothing new I could find — except for yet another “explanation” of the origin of the custom. Like all the others, it’s an amusing if totally implausible story. This legend, supposedly dating back to the Middle Ages, tells how St. Nicholas (the saint, not Santa) rescued two Spanish students who were returning home. When they stopped at an inn to spend the night, the mean innkeeper stole their possessions and locked them in a pickle barrel (Gurkenfass). St. Nicholas returned to the same inn, noticed the young men hidden in the barrel and freed them. Since then, so the legend goes, the Christmas pickle has been hidden in the Christmas tree to commemorate the rescue.
Thus we have more fantasy, and virtually no facts, to support the German tradition that isn’t a German tradition. I had hoped to find a new “glass pickle” blog entry or online article worth linking to, but so far it’s still a vast wasteland out there when it comes to facts about the Weihnachtsgurke.
MORE: Read my original (updated) article about the German glass pickle ornament.