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The mysterious origin of the Christmas Pickle tree ornament

As far as Christmas traditions go, the Weihnachtsgurke, or Christmas Pickle, could very well be the weirdest.

Every year, an ornament shaped like a pickle is the last to be hung on the tree. The first child to locate the pickle, hidden among the pine needles, on Christmas morning receives a special treat. In my family it was a crisp $5 bill.

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Most people are under the impression that ye olde Christmas Pickle is a German tradition. Its name alone seems like a pretty dead giveaway, doesn’t it? Well, according to the New York Times, the Weihnachtsgurke is all but unknown in Germany. A German polling agency found that 91 percent of people had never even heard of it.

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So, is the Christmas Pickle German or not? Nobody seems to know.

The tradition is most popular in the Midwest — Michigan in particular — where there are a lot of German immigrants. Is that how it came to be viewed as a German export? Nobody can be certain.

Not only is its geographic origin a, well, pickle, but people can’t even agree on the meaning behind it.

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According to one legend, it was inspired by a German-American soldier who was taken prisoner during the Civil War. Starving, he begged a guard to give him one last pickle before he died. The pity pickle gave him the mental and physical strength to live on. Another popular story tells a tale of two boys held captive in pickle barrel by an evil innkeeper before they were set free by St. Nicholas.

And then there’s the most likely (and least romantic) story, involving a marketing scheme and German glassblowers. In the 1840s, German glassblowers were churning out ornaments shaped like fruits, nuts and possibly pickles. By the 1880s, F. W. Woolworth Company was importing them and telling their German origin story.

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But no matter how you slice, crunch or stack it, the Christmas Pickle isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. And as for where it came from, we care more about where it is now—and being the first to find it.

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