Tom Ross: Don’t forget to hang a pickle from the tree
Ridiculous to sublime, ornaments embody holiday traditions
Gather ’round children and I’ll tell you once again, that time-honored holiday story of the German pickle ornament.
That’s right, in German villages during the early nineteenth century, it was said to be good luck to hang a glass Christmas ornament resembling a pickle on the old Tannebaum.
European cultures have used evergreens during solstice rituals for many centuries, and the practice wasn’t always connected to the celebration of the birth of Christ. The Vikings believed bundles of evergreen branches symbolized the return of the sun after the shortest day of the year. Druid priests used evergreen boughs to signify eternal life. It wasn’t until relatively recently, in the 1840s, that German glassblowers established the tradition of hanging hollow glass ornaments from the Christmas tree. In some German households, an ornament in the shape of a small pickle was hung deep inside the dense branches of the tree, where it was difficult even to spot. The tradition called for the child who found the pickle to open the first gift.
I don’t know about your family, but mine has no glass pickles among the hundreds of ornaments we have stashed in boxes in the storage closet. Yet, we have cherished Christmas tree ornaments that have no discernible connection to the traditional symbols of the season. I’ll bet you do too. For example, I have a glass ornament that commemorates the Denver Broncos 1997 AFC Championship and Super Bowl XXXII (remember the good old days?). There’ even a 1994 Washington Redskins ornament — that one’s a little harder to explain.
This year, I picked up a gorgeous glass rainbow trout, it’s sides sparkling with glitter, to go with my collection of fly fishing ornaments. I know, Christmas and fly fishing don’t go together, unless you want to stretch it and point out that Jesus was a fisherman. This year, I’ll hang an ornament depicting Santa wearing chest waders and holding a fishing rod over his shoulder while riding on the back of a trout.
We were able to confirm this week that Santa Claus has absolutely no intent of trading in the reindeer for eight tiny brown trout. Easily my favorite whimsical ornament is a hand-painted freestyle skier. The wooden skier has articulated arms and legs so that when you pull on the string attached to the middle of his body, he raises his poles over his head and thrusts his skis out to the side in a perfect spread eagle. If you have pets, you’ve learned not to hang your most prized ornaments near the bottom of the tree — growing up with a cat, we quickly figured out that it was wise to hang cloth angels rather than glass ornaments on the lowest limbs.
Anyone whose spouse teaches elementary school can count on a fresh supply of ornaments — many of them homemade — every holiday season. We have one entire box is devoted to stamped brass ornaments depicting an apple inside a one-room schoolhouse where a tiny bell hangs in the cupola. But the gift ornament that always finds its way onto the tree is the little piglet wearing a lace dress and angel wings. It was sewn by the mother of a kindergartner more than 20 years ago.
I could go on and on — we have an ornament that resembles a Powell Street trolley car in San Francisco, there’s Santa Claus kicking a soccer ball and a cross-country skier with bad form. Of course, we have a nearly complete set of Steamboat Lions Club ornaments (1997 featured a photo of the Rabbit Ears — remember?). A prominent branch on the tree is always reserved for a gorgeous hand-beaded glass ball made by one of my sisters. The most special ornament of all is easy to point out. It’s a small piece of Waterford crystal that resides in a bright red velvet case. Etched in the glass is the year we were married. It was given to us by my late mother-in-law, and although I don’t often think of Alice, I remember her fondly when we hang the ornaments on the tree. Now, back to this legend about German children hunting for the pickle ornament on Christmas morning. There is a report on the Internet that the entire story is a myth at best, and more likely a hoax invented solely for the purpose of selling more ornaments. If that is true, there is a grinch loose among us. But in the end, it matters little. The holidays are made special by establishing new traditions that your family can call its own, then preserving them across generations.
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Editor’s note: The story was updated at 8:33 p.m.