December 18th: In a Pickle
Just when I am tempted to imagine I know everything there is to know about Christmas, along comes a new tradition that I have never heard of: the Christmas pickle. For years I have been attending trade fairs, wondering how come there is demand for the preponderance of gherkin-shaped glass ornaments I see everywhere. Most are not very attractive, and some are just plain ugly. They would never find their way onto one of my trees. Since the principle European Christmas fair is held in Frankfurt, Germany, I assumed pickles to be some strange festive fetish beloved by Bavarians and Berliners (and, no doubt, shortly to be subject to tariffs and import restrictions). Turns out this is exactly what I was supposed to think.
The real story of the Christmas pickle is somewhat different. It seems that at some point in the 1880s, Woolworths stores in the USA began importing traditional glass ornaments from Germany. Some of them were in the shape of fruit and vegetables, with cucumbers / gherkins / pickles among them. No doubt anticipating that pimply green vegetables might not be the hottest sellers in town, an enterprising sales person concocted a story about an ancient German family tradition involving pickles. Quite simply the pickle was hung on the tree in a hard to spot place and the first child to locate it was rewarded with an extra gift. Hunt the gherkin, if you will. All very plausible.
The story caught on and pickles soon entered the panoply of adopted Christmas traditions in the USA. In an attempt to give historical credence to the tale, a link to a mediaeval legend involving St Nicholas was made. This involved St Nicholas saving two Spanish boys from drowning in a barrel of pickles. However, the original story where the boys were disguised in a barrel of pie meat soon came to light and the pickle story was exposed for what it really is – a very clever marketing ploy.
One has to raise one’s hat, or glass, to the sales person who invented the story of the Christmas pickle. It has sufficient simplicity to be found plausible, combined with enough absurdity to make it interesting, or ‘sticky’ as marketeers might describe it. I have suggested on occasion that we should replace the gherkin in British culture with a Brussels sprout. These ornaments have sold well, but the practice of hiding them on a tree hasn’t caught on. Which reminds me, have you heard the ancient legend where St Nicholas visits people’s houses dispensing presents from a basket laden with crisp, green miniature cabbages …….? TFG.