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The Christmas Pickle

The Christmas Pickle. I learned about this Christmas tradition for the first time from one of my friends. To quote her explanation, “Every Christmas we use the same pickle ornament, usually my dad hides it in the tree, and whoever finds it on Christmas day gets to open a present first.” It’s a fun tradition that she has been doing ever since she was a little girl. She says that it didn’t start until her sister was at their neighbor’s for a Christmas party and took one of the ornaments, a pickle. It was later explained to her family by the same neighbors of the tradition and they have done it ever since. The tradition itself apparently comes from a story of a German-American prisoner 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. This story is much harsher than its Christmas counterpart but nonetheless displays a sense of fortune and luck through a pickle.

The Christmas Pickle: A Christmas Tradition

Original Text:

INFORMANT: “We do it at my own house, like the one that I live at, and then we also do it at my grandparent’s house. At my grandparent’s house, it’s a little bit more of a tradition because we all go there on Christmas day to celebrate. Before everyone arrives, only my dad hides the Christmas pickle in the tree.”

COLLECTOR: “Is it a real pickle?”

INFORMANT: No, it’s an ornament. But its the same ornament we have had forever. Its glass and shiny so it fits in with all the other ornaments. But, before everyone gets there, my grandfather hides it in the tree somewhere and he’s very good at it. And he never tells anyone where it is. And then we all get there on Christmas day, and when we are doing our presents after dinner on Christmas day, he usually announces that the pickle is in the tree and that there will be a prize for the first person to find it. There’s no time limit, but people start looking right away. Sometimes we can find it really fast, and sometimes we can’t. And then usually its my aunt who finds it, but last year I found it and it was a cash prize and snacks. Like 25 bucks. It’s fun, I don’t know.” 

Context: The informant is 19 years old and studies Theater at USC. Her and her family are of mixed European descent, and they have lived in Salem, Virginia for decades. The informant is not religious, but her family is Christian.  She learned the Christmas pickle tradition from her grandparents. She enjoys this tradition because “hiding the pickle and searching for it is childish, but it’s accepted and it gives you the opportunity to have young innocent fun”. She hates that “as you grow up, being a child becomes less and less acceptable”, but the tradition of the pickle is “a way to keep the holiday spirit alive”.

Analysis: The Christmas pickle tradition is rumored to original from Germany, but that theory has been disproven. Although Christmas is a secular holiday for many, the informants family is Christian, and having a fun tradition like the Christmas pickle is a way to bring the family closer together on this holy day. The fact that it takes place in her grandparents house allows for the different generations in the informants family to connect. In the rural town of Salem, Virginia, there isn’t a large mall with a Santa or a Christmas parade in the city to go to every year. Families are more inclined to make special traditions at home to keep the magic alive. The patriarch of the family, the informants grandfather, always has the privilege of hiding the pickle. The practice of searching for a magical object for a prize like the Christmas pickle mirrors other Christian holiday traditions like Easter eggs. 

A Christmas Pickle


Talking about Christmas traditions

L: Also, whoever– The way we decided who opens their presents first is that there’s one uhhhh ornament on the tree that is a pickle, and whoever finds it first gets to open the first present.

ME: I heard about this from my friend A!!

L: really?

ME: A was talking about a Christmas pickle

L: do you know where it’s from?

ME: no I have no idea

L: I don’t know where it’s from 

ME: her [A’s] guess was like: someone in America was like let’s make a Christmas pickle and try to sell it. That was her guess. 

L: yeah, no yeah, we have a Christmas pickle. It’s sparkly

ME: You have a Christmas pickle that’s uh an ornament 

L: I’ll show it to you

ME: tell me what– tell me about the Christmas pickle

L: ok so the Christmas pickle, that’s from my dad’s side of the family. Ummm. I don’t even know where it came from, I should really ask them. But like I just remember ever since I was a little kid ‘find the pickle.’ it would always be my grandparents who would hide it on the tree and then like we would all search for it. I usually was the one to find it first. I’m not kidding, like almost every year. I don’t know why, I’m usually not that observant, but umm yeah the Christmas pickle. Loved it. Umm yeah, don’t know where it came from. And we would always go from there, youngest to eldest for opening presents. One at a time, always. Like that stuck.


This tradition was shared with me by a friend after going grocery shopping together when we sat in my bedroom to do schoolwork together.

L is a Jewish-American USC student studying sociology who grew up in Colorado.


Christmas games and present-giving styles vary greatly from house to house. The Christmas pickle seems one such game/style. Before this year I was unfamiliar with the tradition.

L says she has no idea where the practice came from, but that she loves it. I offer that the tradition may have been started by a company with the intention of profiting off of selling Christmas pickles. This style of tradition creation is not unprecedented, especially in America.

Christmas Pickle


C: It’s really pretty straightforward. Um, so ever since your mom was little, we put this pickle ornament on the Christmas tree. Just like a ceramic little pickle. But, um, you put it on and, and whoever finds it first wins a present. 

Me: Where did you get your pickle ornament?

C: Um… I think mine right now is from The Christmas Mouse.

Me: What’s the prize for the winner?

C: Anything. Candy or money or something like that. 

Background: C was born and raised in Richmond, Virginia, where she resides today. Her family claims German heritage. The Christmas Mouse is a local holiday decor store. 

Context: This story was told to me in-person by my grandmother, C. 

Analysis: The Christmas Pickle has always been a big deal for my family. I grew up with two sisters, and we often got competitive in the days after Thanksgiving when the tree was being decorated. When we spend Christmas at my mom’s, there isn’t a prize for finding the pickle. I remember us having prizes when we were younger, but she stopped as we became teenagers. Now, finding the pickle is purely for bragging rights. When we go to my grandmother’s for the holiday, however, she still takes the hunt very seriously. The prize nowadays is often a gift card or mug- things that are more appealing to adults than candy and toys. 



Informant: So like a German tradition is you hide like a pickle––or, the parents hide a pickle––like, in the Christmas tree… And then like all the kids have to find it in the tree. And like, whoever wins––like in the olden days, they used to get like an orange. Or they might get an ornament. But that was in like the 1800s. 


Informant: Um… But so my grandma was like, “That’s gross.” So my uncle was like, “We have to do it!” And so then they got a pickle ornament instead. So they hide the ornament in the tree, and a lot of people do that now instead of getting like a real pickle.  And we like don’t give an orange cause that’s like… Boring. So it’s more like… You get like a little extra sweet or something, but it’s more like bragging rights… And I know that my German family does it too, but I don’t know if we’ve like Americanized it at all though. 

Interviewer: Did you like it as a kid?

Informant: Yeeeeah! You know, what’s a little competition on Christmas? It spices things up! Cause it’s like, “Who’s gonna win?” So it was always me and my cousin, ‘cause my sister and my little cousins were like babies. But then they started hiding it like lower down. Like that was annoying ‘cause then the little ones had a better chance of winning. 


The informant expressed that the pickle tradition has been modernized, with her family replacing an orange with a sweet, and a real pickle with a pickle ornament. The tradition has undergone variation over time. However, the fun it brings to the children remains the same, allowing the tradition to continue. Engaging in a tradition will always be a contemporary activity; traditions happen and are upheld in the present moment. The informant’s family is engaging in the tradition in the modern day, and so adjusts it to modern sensibilities. Tradition does not replicate the past, it just connects us to the past.