23 December 2011

Find the gherkin

We all know about the Christmases past where stockings, real foot-work socks, were filled with fruit and nuts. This may seem quaint or perhaps a bit weird in this day of overstuffed stockings, filled to the brim with candy, gadgets, and a wide array of nonsensical items that we share a smile over, but tradition should never be sneered at. Another tradition that has garnered quite a bit of attention over the past couple of years is the German tale of tucking away a pickle ornament somewhere in a tree on Christmas Eve. In fact, in Walt Disney World, you can find a whole tree stuffed to the gills with pickle ornaments!

As the story goes, and is told in the Germany pavilion, a glass pickle ornament was placed on the tree by parents on Christmas Eve and the eagle-eyed child who found the ornament on Christmas morning were rewarded with an extra gift from St. Nicholas. It’s the type of offbeat tradition that just warms you from the inside, doesn’t it? Except that it isn’t entirely true. In Germany, St. Nick comes on the 5th or 6th of December and children open their gifts on Christmas Eve. So, what is the true story of the pickle ornament?

The production of glass ornaments took off in the Lauscha region of Germany, an area renowned for its blown glass, in the mid to late 1800s. While traditional shapes and images were the first produced, very quickly molds of famous individuals and creatures of every sort soon followed. As time passed, Lauscha would become the primary source for glass pickle ornaments.

As for the pickle present, we have to come back across the Atlantic to the United States, in the midst of the Civil War. The Bavarian-born Private, John C. Lower, was part of the 103rd Pennsylvania Infantry and was captured in Plymouth, North Carolina in April of 1864. Lower was taken to the prison camp, Andersonville, where he spent the following Christmas. On Christmas Eve, near death of starvation, he begged a guard for something to eat before he expired. Softened by the pleas, the guard gave him a single pickle which gave Lower the mental clarity and strength to carry on until he was released. Afterwards, Lower began the tradition of hiding, with the reward being a year of good fortune for the family member who found the ornament.

While mostly a family narrative that cannot be easily verified, Private John Lower was a prisoner in Andersonville that much is for certain. No matter what you want to believe about that pickle tucked away on the tree, an old German tradition or a memorial to the fortitude of the human spirit, it is a Christmas ornament worthy of remembrance. The stories of all our ornaments, picked up on a family vacation or demarking a birth, marriage or other event, are the reasons all of our trees shine so brightly in our hearts.

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