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The Christmas Pickle

December 20, 2022

Everyone has a favorite ornament on their Christmas tree. For some, it’s those red, shiny glass spheres that reflect the lights around them, bathing the room in a warm glow on Christmas Eve. Others prefer ribbons, beads, or candy canes. There are those whose fondest ornament is the tiny macaroni angel or baked salt dough wreath their child made for them in kindergarten. But for some families, their favorite ornament will always be the Christmas Pickle.

Not many people, I imagine, decorate their trees with pickles anymore, but at one point, it was a common sight on American Christmas trees and game children looked forward to all year. “The Christmas Pickle?” I can almost hear you ask. “What does a pickle have to do with Christmas?”

It all started one Christmas Eve in 1864 when a man named John C. Lower was starving. Lower was a German immigrant. When the Civil War broke out, Lower decided to fight for his newly adopted nation by enlisting in the 103rd Pennsylvania Infantry. For years, Lower’s unit had fought in some of the fiercest battles of the war – but their worst experience began in April of 1864 when most of the regiment was captured and held at the notorious Andersonville Prison. The prison was overcrowded and unsanitary. There was little water and even less food. For months, John suffered and starved. Like most prisoners, he was almost constantly sick. Death was near when finally, on Christmas Eve, he broke down and begged one of the guards for something to eat. We don’t know if the guard was cruel or kind. We don’t know if he was indifferent to John’s plight or moved to charity by the spirit of the season. What we do know is that, in response, the guard gave John a pickle.

It may not seem like much. But for John, that gift of a single pickle wasn’t just a Christmas meal. It was a Christmas miracle. Because, as he later told his family, it gave him the strength – both physical and mental – to endure. To stay alive. Amazingly, John survived both the camp and the war. When he returned to his family late in 1865, he told them about his experiences. And every Christmas, he would hide a pickle for his family to find. Whoever found the pickle would be blessed with good fortune, just as he had been – and his personal miracle would never be forgotten.

Eventually, the tradition spread. Parents would hide pickles – usually made of glass instead of the real thing, for understandable reasons – in their tree for children to find on Christmas morning. Whoever found it would have good luck throughout the year. There are other theories about the origin of “the Christmas Pickle,” of course – few traditions come from a single story. But many, many years later, Lower’s great-great-granddaughter wrote to a newspaper about her family’s story. It’s the one I like best because it illustrates one of the things I love most about Christmas.

Everyone has a favorite ornament on their Christmas tree. For some, it’s an ornament that reminds them of their youth. For others, it’s an ornament passed down from generation to generation. For some, it’s the most beautiful bauble on the tree. For others, it’s the simple, handcrafted decoration they made themselves. For some, it’s the ornament that recalls their happiest days. For others, it’s the ornament that recalls a time when life was hard when there was adversity to overcome…or a miracle to experience. Everyone has a favorite ornament on their Christmas tree – because every ornament tells a story. And it’s those stories that make Christmas so special.

One of my favorite holiday traditions is to decorate the tree every year with my family because it’s during that time that we share and swap stories. Each ornament we hang comes with a “Do you remember when…” or an “I can’t believe it’s been that many years since…” Each ornament is not just a decoration for our tree but a reminder of what we love about life and each other.

And that, to me, is the real meaning of Christmas. I can’t wait for the holiday this year. Can’t wait to celebrate it with friends and loved ones. Can’t wait to relive old stories and create all new ones. I can’t wait to pull my favorite ornament out of its box and hang it up on the tree.

On behalf of Tina and I, we wish you joy in your favorite ornament, whether it’s storebought, homemade, or even a single, solitary pickle. I wish you joy in the story that goes with it. And most of all, I wish you a very Merry Christmas!