The Curious Tradition of Hanging a Christmas Pickle Ornament on Trees

Tricia, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Tricia, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Every family has its own holiday traditions. Maybe they open Christmas presents after dinner. Perhaps they hang stockings up for their pet. Some might display homemade decorations.

Others might hide a Christmas pickle ornament in their tree, as simplemost highlights.

This tradition, which allegedly has roots in Germany, has been adopted by a growing number of American households in the Midwest and elsewhere. Usually, the glossy green ornament in the shape and texture of a pickle is hung somewhere deep in the tree. The first child to find the pickle on Christmas morning is the recipient of good luck in the coming year and a special gift. (The other children are presumably fresh out of luck.)

Many of these families are under the impression that the Christmas pickle, or Weihnachtsgurke, was brought over to the United States by German immigrants. It’s been said the poverty-stricken people of 19th-century Spreewald, too poor to have actual ornaments, hung pickles instead.

While all of this makes some sense—or as much sense as a brined holiday ornament is ever going to make—the reality is that the vast majority of Germans have never heard of this tradition. In 2016, after word of Americans hanging pickles was picked up by German newspapers, a survey found that 91 percent of German households had no idea about Christmas pickles or what they were intended to represent.

A Christmas pickle hangs from a Christmas tree
Dean Johnson, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

It turns out that clever marketing may be behind it. When retail giant Woolworths began importing German ornaments in the 1890s, they noted that some were in the shape of a pickle and began ascribing a deeper meaning behind it. This was no ordinary ornament—it was a pickle steeped in the customs of an exotic land.

Much later, in the 1990s, ornament artisans began relating the apocryphal story of the pickle, saying its green color blended with the tree and that a child would be rewarded for their “keen observation” in finding it.

Another, far more disturbing folk origin involves an evil shopkeeper in Myra, a town that hosted the benevolent St. Nicholas in the Middle Ages. As the story goes, the shopkeeper enjoyed dismembering children and stuffing them into pickle barrels. St. Nicholas prayed, and the mutilated children emerged from their briny fates alive and well.

Whether it had origins in Spreewald or gruesome fantasies, it seems Americans embraced the tale. One prominent German ornament manufacturer, Lauscha Glass Center, started making the ornaments in the mid-1990s—but only after one of their employees visited Michigan and saw the Christmas pickle adorning trees there. So if you’re looking to do something different this season, consider the pickle. It’s either a German tradition hardly any German has heard of, or the result of pickled child mutilation. Happy holidays.

[h/t simplemost]

Why Are There No Snakes in Ireland?

iStock
iStock

Legend tells of St. Patrick using the power of his faith to drive all of Ireland’s snakes into the sea. It’s an impressive image, but there’s no way it could have happened.

There never were any snakes in Ireland, partly for the same reason that there are no snakes in Hawaii, Iceland, New Zealand, Greenland, or Antarctica: the Emerald Isle is, well, an island.

Eightofnine via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Once upon a time, Ireland was connected to a larger landmass. But that time was an ice age that kept the land far too chilly for cold-blooded reptiles. As the ice age ended around 10,000 years ago, glaciers melted, pouring even more cold water into the now-impassable expanse between Ireland and its neighbors.

Other animals, like wild boars, lynx, and brown bears, managed to make it across—as did a single reptile: the common lizard. Snakes, however, missed their chance.

The country’s serpent-free reputation has, somewhat perversely, turned snake ownership into a status symbol. There have been numerous reports of large pet snakes escaping or being released. As of yet, no species has managed to take hold in the wild—a small miracle in itself.

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If March 15 Is the Ides of March, What Does That Make March 16?

iStock.com/bycostello
iStock.com/bycostello

Everyone knows that the soothsayer in William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar was talking about March 15 when he warned the Roman emperor to "beware the Ides of March." We also all know Caesar's response: "Nah, I gotta head into the office that day." But if March 15 is the Ides of March, what does that make March 16?

At the time of Caesar's assassination, Romans were using the Julian calendar (introduced by Julius Caesar himself). This was a modified version of the original Roman calendar, and it is very similar to the one we use today (which is called the Gregorian calendar). A major difference, however, was how Romans talked about the days.

Each month had three important dates: the Kalends (first day of the month), the Ides (the middle of the month), and the Nones (ninth day before the Ides, which corresponded with the first phase of the Moon). Instead of counting up (i.e., March 10, March 11, March 12), Romans kept track by counting backwards and inclusively from the Kalends, Ides, or Nones. March 10 was the sixth day before the Ides of March, March 11 was the fifth day before the Ides of March, and so on.

Because it came after the Ides, March 16 would’ve been referred to in the context of April: "The 17th day before the Kalends of April." The abbreviated form of this was a.d. XVII Kal. Apr., with "a.d." standing for ante diem, meaning roughly "the day before."

So, had Julius Caesar been murdered on March 16, the soothsayer's ominous warning would have been, "Beware the 17th day before the Kalends of April." Doesn't have quite the same ring to it.

This story first ran in 2016.

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