According to legend, the Christmas Pickle was a time-honored German tradition that found its way to America in the Victorian Era. Parents would wait until Christmas Eve to hide a small pickle-shaped ornament somewhere on the tree. The first child to spot it on Christmas morning received a special treat. Sadly, this legend lands historians in a pickle because it can’t be substantiated. Here’s how the Christmas Pickle launched holiday dreams and Woolworth’s dynasty.
Prince Albert was born in Germany where evergreen trees were traditionally brought into the home and decorated with toys, candles, sweets and fruits. While Queen Victoria was familiar with the custom from her childhood, it was Albert who brought his love of the custom to Windsor Castle.
In 1848, the Royal Family was seen gathered around a decorated Christmas tree in an engraving published in the Illustrated London News. In 1850, Sarah Hale, co-editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book in the United States published an adapted image of the royal Christmas tree. Settlers of Pennsylvania had already been decorating Christmas trees, but it was Hale’s influence as a trendsetter that turned the custom into a must-do rage.
Europeans favored smaller trees that fit on a table while Americans preferred floor-to-ceiling trees. Early decorations included fruits, nuts, gingerbread, marzipan and handmade ornaments. Candles were used to light trees until electricity arrived.
Hans Greiner (1550-1609) began producing glass ornaments in Lauscha, Germany in 1847. Other local artists picked up on Greiner’s success and an industry of glass figures made from clay molds was born. According to Wikipedia, “…artisans heated a glass tube over a flame then inserted the tube into a clay mold, blowing the heated glass to expand into the shape of the mold.”
Unique glass ornaments from Lauscha soon became popular in other parts of Eruope. By the1870s, they were rage in Britain. Many of these were shaped like nuts and fruits. Perhaps there was a pickle among them?
By the late 1800s Christmas ornaments were imported to America from Germany. According to F.W. Woolworth’s website, a salesman with glass ornaments from Germany called on Frank Woolworth’s store in Lancaster, Pennsylvania in the Fall of 1880. The store had been in business for about one year. Frank W. Woolworth had a reputation as a canny buyer with a knack for picking products and an ability to drive a hard bargain.
Woolworth said his customers wouldn’t waste their money on the ornaments that didn’t “do anything.” He purchased a case of 144 with the agreement that he would be refunded if they didn’t sell. The decorations sold in less than a day, generating a profit of $4.32.
Woolworth channeled most of his ornaments through an importer in New York City. “It is estimated that the total sales between 1880 and 1939 exceeded a staggering five hundred million individual baubles.”
According to Mr. Wilmsem, the original ornament salesman, Woolworth only had a few stores when he first started importing Christmas tree ornaments. “I have sold at least $25,000,000 (not a typo!) worth of Christmas tree ornaments, in one year $800,000 worth.”
At the turn of the century, there were more than a hundred small glass-blowing workshops in Europe that made ornaments exclusively. Today approximately 20 glass-blowing firms still produce Christmas ornaments in Lauscha. A renowned Christmas Ball-market takes place there every year to celebrate their festive history.
Whether the legend is true or a marketing coup, you can find Christmas Pickles in Germany today. The Christmas Pickle is a fun tradition even if its origin remains a Victorian Secret.
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