history

Pickle Tree

Continuing the theme of “The Victorians were weird and morbid” I have another Christmas tradition for you, one many of you might be familiar with but don’t know the origin of: The Christmas Pickle.

In some parts of Germany[1] and Eastern Europe, it is tradition to hang a pickle ornament somewhere on the tree. It’s usually hidden somewhere, and the person who finds it gets a special gift. But where did this tradition come from? Why a pickle of all things?

Well, saddle up because it’s time for another morbid tale from the annals of history.

Nicholas of Myra was a Bishop in the early days of the Christian church (270-343 AD). Myra was then a Greek city (now in Turkey). During his life he was known particularly for his patronage of women, the poor, and children, which would carry through after his death and cannonization to his later association with Father Christmas/Santa.

But before he was a Saint, Nicholas was a wealthy bishop who worked hard to help the less fortunate in Myra and the surrounding area.

One day, three youths traveled from Asia to Myra to study. They’d had a very long journey and arrived in the city late, taking a room in a lodging house/tavern before moving on to the school.

The innkeeper, however, was very unscrupulous. He saw their display of wealth–the long journey, the amount of luggage they had–and decided to rob them. As there were three of them and one of him, he decided the best way would be after they were asleep. The innkeeper murdered all three in their beds, cut up the bodies, and stuffed them into pickling barrels to dispose of later.

Bishop Nicholas had a vision of this, and went immediately to the inn where he revealed the crime. Confronted with three barrels full of body parts, he told the boys to get up–and they did, rising from the barrels, healthy and well.

In another version of the story, it’s three young boys entrapped by an unscrupulous butcher during a period of famine, with the intent of passing off their bodies as ham. In yet another, it’s a French baker who decides to go Sweeny Todd on them. Whichever version of the story you subscribe to, it’s been misconstrued over the centuries as it moved westward, leading to St. Nick being the patron no only of children, but also of brewers because he often appears with a barrel.

Regardless, it’s the boys in the pickle barrels that are the reason so many families, even today, hang a lucky pickle on their Christmas tree.

[1] Primarily the Black Forest region, though this appears to be more of a German-American tradition than actual German.

Further reading:

St. Nicholas Center
St. Nicholas on Wikipedia
Britanica
Biography
St. Nick Legends


Like what you see? Check out Season’s Greetings, Victorian Style.

2 thoughts on “Pickle Tree”

  1. That’s funny! I actually live in “sinterklaas” country, but I have never heard this pickle story before. Thank you for sharing this, I have very much enjoyed it. 🙂

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  2. Sorry to say but there is actually no Christmas pickle tradition in Germany. The only place I’ve ever heard about this was from Americans. Weird.
    Christmas trees themselves were not widespread in Bavaria, for example, before WW II.

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