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OFFBEAT

Are Christmas pickle ornaments really a German tradition?

Hang a shining... pickle... on the highest bough? The Weihnachtsgurke, or Christmas Pickle, is supposedly a classic German tradition. But it may not be quite as traditional - or German - as you'd expect.

Are Christmas pickle ornaments really a German tradition?
A Weihnachtsgurke. Photo: DPA

Legend has it that when Germans decorate their Christmas tree, the very last ornament they hang on it is a pickle.

Usually made from shiny or matte green glass rather than cucumbers, the Christmas Pickle is much more than just a decoration.

On Christmas Eve, the first child to find the pickle hidden amongst the branches on the tree is said to get good luck for the year to come, as well as an extra present.

SEE ALSO: Everything you need to know about preparing for Christmas like a German

If you ask someone from the American Midwest, they will most likely be able to tell you all about this German festive custom. Germans, on the other hand, will have absolutely no idea what you’re on about.

In December 2016, a YouGov survey found that only 7% of Germans had ever heard of the ‘Weihnachtsgurke’.

What’s more, only 6% of Germans with children who know about the Christmas Pickle actually practise the tradition.

But you can certainly be forgiven for believing that the Christmas Pickle comes from Germany as Germans do certainly love their pickles.

What’s more, many of the best festive traditions such as Christmas trees, a large number of Christmas carols, advents wreaths and Christmas markets actually do have their roots in German customs.

Though no one is entirely sure where the Weihnachtsgurke originates from, with a number of German newspapers even publishing explainer articles for the puzzled German public, it’s pretty likely that whoever brought it to the USA capitalized on the popularity of these German Christmas traditions when marketing pickle ornaments to American consumers.


Photo: DPA

On the packaging of a lot of pickle ornaments you can find an explanation of how to carry out the ‘time-honoured German tradition’, emphasizing how it’s an ‘Old World custom’.

Glass ornaments only really started being produced in the late 19th-century, with a whole range of shapes – including fruits and vegetables – being sold in stores.

The likelihood is that the Christmas Pickle tradition is just an ingenious marketing scheme by an American retailer to help shift a load of leftover pickle ornaments.

But there are a number of less cynical myths explaining the significance of the Christmas pickle.

One story goes that a captured German-American soldier in the civil war became seriously ill and asked for a pickle as his last meal. After eating it, he was somehow restored to health and from then on always hung a pickle on his tree each year.

According to another legend, St. Nicholas (the original saint, rather than the jolly, fat man with a fondness for elves) discovered that a shop keeper had murdered three boys and hidden them in a barrel of pickles.

St. Nicholas prayed for the boys and his faith miraculously brought them back to life. Supposedly, from then on the pickle has been linked to St. Nick and consequently to Christmas.

Somewhat ironically, the Christmas Pickle has made its way across the pond and has recently started to rise in popularity in Germany.

Take a close look the next time you’re in a Christmas market or shop; nowadays you can find pickle ornaments across the Bundesrepublik in every style and size you could possibly want.

READ ALSO: Why there is one thing about German Christmas that sends a chill down my spine

For members

CULTURE

‘Sandals mean freedom’: Eight tips on how to dress like a German

Germans have an international reputation for enjoying functional clothing. A top German fashion expert told The Local whether the stereotypes of German fashion are really true - and what Angela Merkel has to do with modern style.

‘Sandals mean freedom’: Eight tips on how to dress like a German

‘Comfortable and practical’

“It’s pretty easy to define German style,” says Bernhard Roetzel, the author of books on men’s fashion such as ‘Gentleman: A Timeless Guide to Fashion’. “Nowadays the basic dress of a grown-up man is mainly blue jeans, some kind of sweatshirt and an anorak. The shoes are usually comfortable sneakers. This is the basic German fashion that everyone from workers to doctors wears, and it is suitable for 90 percent of occasions.”

The basic theme, he says, is comfort and practicality. “That is very important.”

According to Roetzel, this love for the practical stretches all the way back into the 19th century when most other Europeans still had strict public dress codes.

“It began with a movement called Lebensreform, which valued things like vegetarianism and woollen clothes, which were supposed to be healthy,” he says.

“Even if Germans at the time didn’t like political freedom, they loved the freedom to wear sandals. Freedom for Germans is to wear sandals in places where it is not appropriate!”

A woman lies on the shore of the Schwarzachtalsee in Baden-Württemberg still wearing her sandals. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Thomas Warnack

Dressing down became even more acceptable after the First World War, when Germany became a republic and the aristocracy, with its formal sense of dress, lost its importance. “The Nazis also propagated being active outdoors,” Roetzel notes. “Fashion was seen as something awful created by the French and the Jews to bring about the downfall of German culture.”

When the craze for casual wear crossed the pond from the US in the 1960s, Germans were slow to adopt it. But now jeans are even standard clothing for septuagenarians, he says. “Twenty years after jeans arrived people started to realise that they are great for all occasions – and now everyone wears them. This was the last blow to formal German clothing.”

Dress down for work

The German love for all-purpose clothes means that it is perfectly appropriate to wear jeans to work, according to Roetzel. 

“If you don’t work in a bank or law firm you can probably wear jeans in most offices. A non-iron, short sleeve shirt is also very important. German men love these shirts, despite the fact that you get hot in them.”

You can even wear sneakers in the office. Or, if you have to look a bit smarter “some very cheap, comfortable leather shoes” will make you fit right in.

“In business, it is very important that you don’t stand out,” Roetzel advises. “If you are smartly dressed people will ask if you have an important meeting or will think you are looking for a pay rise. For everyday business, you dress as casually as possible.”

A woman cycles to work in jeans and a simple jacket in Hamburg. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Christin Klose

Nothing too sexy

Meanwhile, women’s workplace style, perhaps even more than men’s, is based on the principle of ‘the more forgettable the better.’

“Women in German business must not look too sexy,” says the fashion writer. “If you wear a skirt, for example, it should not be too short and heels should not be too high.” A “boxy, mouse grey suit” including a jacket that doesn’t complement one’s figure completes the look.

“Whereas in Italy, businesswomen carry Chanel bags, in Germany they usually carry a laptop bag or something very practical. Makeup is also rather reduced, not too much lipstick, nothing that is too obvious,” he says.

No door policy

Ties are basically a redundant piece of apparel in modern Germany, meaning wearing one really is a matter of choice in most settings.

“There are very few places where you are not allowed in if you don’t wear a tie,” says Roetzel. “I don’t know a single restaurant that wouldn’t admit you if you don’t wear a tie. You might not be allowed into Cologne Cathedral if your shorts are too short, but basically, you can wear everything everywhere and Germans love this!”

Funerals and weddings

Even the most formal occasions, such as weddings, funerals and important birthdays are much more informal events than they once were.

“At funerals, people will wear black but they rarely wear a black suit, most people will wear a black sweatshirt and jeans,” says Roetzel.

Copy Merkel

Angela Merkel’s unpretentious style appealed to Germans. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Fabian Sommer

Anyone looking for inspiration need look no further than recently retired German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who famously wore variations on the same trouser suit for most of her career.

“She had different colours and fabrics but that was her uniform and she also found her hairstyle and that was it. I don’t think she had a stylist,” Roetzel says. “That’s what Germans love. It’s recognizable and it doesn’t look expensive.”

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“In Germany, one thing you should never admit to is wearing expensive, tailor-made clothes,” he explains. “As a politician, you can admit that you like drinking but you should never admit to having an expensive wardrobe.”

In fact, the cheaper the better. “Olaf Scholz has always earned a lot of money but his clothes are awful, his suits are awful – this is just perfect for Germany,” says Roetzel.

Splash the cash subtly (or on outdoor clothes)

This is not to say that all Germans wear cheap clothes, but they don’t make a big fuss about the brands that they do wear.

“People want to express status by wearing certain brands,” Roetzel points out. “But in Germany, this is done in a very subtle way. You will see small details in the clothes and glasses of a professor or doctor that will tell you a lot. Class exists but people hide their status because it is negative to show it off. This can be hard for foreigners to detect.”

There is one major exemption thought to the rule of not flaunting your wealth – outdoor apparel.

“Outdoor clothes are really a big thing here,” Roetzel says. “It gives people a sense of freedom and healthiness. Spending €800 on an outdoor jacket is perfectly okay. But it is a sin to spend the same amount on a tailor-made suit – you will destroy your image if you admit to doing this.”

Moreover, anyone who wants to impress Germans through their possessions would be better advised to buy a good car or modern kitchen, the fashion expert says. “It is perfectly normal to have a very expensive kitchen, but your clothes should still be cheap.”

Focus on inner beauty

The German (dis)interest in fashion can actually tell us a lot about deeper German values.

“There is an old Prussian saying of mehr sein als schein (content is better than appearance). Germans feel that if something is too beautiful there must be something fishy about it. Anyone who is too smartly dressed could be a conman,” says Roetzel.

“Germans are very honest, they like to be very direct. They say “what’s the point in not wearing sandals if it’s hot?’”

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