[Advent Calendar of Christmas Memories] Christmas Tree Ornaments: The Pickle

Welcome to MyNeChimKi’s Advent Calendar of Christmas Memories! Thanks to Geneabloggers for developing these fantastic prompts for some holiday spirited blogging. Over the next month we’ll be blogging about some of our fondest Christmas memories.

This post was originally posted on 3 December 2010.

Today’s topic: Christmas Tree Ornaments: The Pickle

Some time after we moved to Leesburg, my mother and I stumbled across a tiny little German glass ornament of a pickle. It likely measurs somewhere around an inch and a half. It originally caught our eye because our family tree is filled with crazy ornaments like vultures, bunches of grapes, scandelous Adam and Eve and other oddities. However, along with the tiny little pickle ornament came an little card that told the story of the Christmas pickle.

A very old Christmas eve tradition in Germany was to hide a pickle [ornament] deep in the branches of the family Christmas Tree. The parents hung the pickle last after all the other ornaments were in place. In the morning they knew the most observant child would receive an extra gift from St. Nicholas. The first adult who finds the pickle traditionally gets good luck for the whole year.1

My father’s family has German heritage so we decided that we would pick up this “tradition” and make it our own. Each Christmas Eve we would take turns hiding the pickle inside our tree and the finder would receive a special “pickle gift.” Friends, family, and neighbors alike all played our little game and have enjoyed this special little adventure each year.

However, it wasn’t until several years ago that I began doing some more research into the origins of the pickle tradition. As it turns out, the ornament’s legend is shrouded in mystery and likely more of a myth than a legend. Many have looked into the origins of the pickle tradition in Germany and have always come up empty handed. It appears that no one is familiar with this tradition in the Old World! This has lead to the hypothesis that the tradition is something of a German-American tradition.

Some claim that the tradition was formed around the time of the Civil War, originating from a young private born in Bavaria by the name of John Lower (sometimes seen as Hans/John Lauer) who had been captured at Plymouth, North Carolina in April of 1864. He was later taken to Andersonville, Georgia as a POW. This legend recounts that Lower was in poor health and starving at Andersonville. He felt sure that he was soon to die and begged a guard for a single pickle to satisfy his hunger before he died. The guard took pity on him and granted his request. Lower told his family that the single pickle must have been graced by God because it gave him the mental and physical strength to stay alive. After being released and reunited with his family he began the tradition of hiding a pickle in the family Christmas tree, the finder being blessed with good fortune and health for the coming year.2

It’s unlikely that anyone will ever be able to prove this family lore. However, there certainly was a John Lower who was a Private in Company H of the 103rd Pennsylvania Volunteers.3 He was captured at Plymouth, North Carolina and transferred to Andersonville, Georgia and later to Charleston, South Carolina to be released on 10 December 1864.4 Company H of the 103rd Pennsylvania Volunteers was recruited from Clarion County, Pennsylvania. In the 1860 U. S. Census from Clarion County we find a young 18-year-old John Lowery from Bavaria.5 He’s living with his parents George and Othella Lowery and five other siblings (the last three are indicated as being born in Pennsylvania). Based on the ages of the three youngest children, it is likely that the family immigrated the United States some time between 1848 and 1852.

We find John Lowers, 29, enumerated in the 1870 U. S. Census in Knox Township, Clarion County, Pennsylvania married to Frances with two young children and a man named, George Bindospher (his occupation is blank).6 One household above John and Frances is the household of George Lowers (55). George’s wife is listed as Priscilla (55) and they have two children Mary (15) and William (13).7 Mary and William’s ages correlate to the two youngest children found on the 1860 census and help to corroborate that this is indeed the same family despite the difference in name of George’s wife.

Continuing to follow John Lauer through the census records reveals that he continues to live in Knox Township, Clarion County in 1880, 1900, and 1910.8 9 10 The 1900 Census gives quite a few more clues about John Lauer and his life events. The census indicates that he and Frances have been married for 34 years, putting their marriage date somewhere around 1866, just two years after John was released from military prison at the close of the Civil War.11 Additionally, in the citizenship information, the census indicates that he and his mother immigrated in 1846, his wife in 1854. There is no information given in response to the question on naturalization, however, other individuals listed on the same page have indicate a “no” in some cases. There could be additional information on John Lauer and his family in naturalization/citizenship records.

In John Woolf Jordan’s Genealogical and personal history of the Allegheny Valley, biographical sketches of both John and his father George Lauer can be found. John Lauer died in Clarion county on 28 April 1911. His biography indicates that he began farming his land after returning from war and remained on the same farm for the duration of his life. He married Frnaces Loll in Clarion County in November of 1848 and was reported as a “Republican in politics, and a Roman Catholic in religion.”12

Despite there being no mention of a blessed gherkin in Allegheny Valley, it is apparent that John Lauer is a real man with obvious German heritage. Whether an old family oral tradition from John Lauer or someone like him, or just a fictional legend, our family will continue to pass on the tradition of the Christmas pickle.

  1. “German Myth 11 – The German Christmas Pickle – Weihnachtsgurke,” About.com German Language, web page (http://german.about.com/library/blgermyth11.htm : accessed 3 December 2010)
  2. Staff Reports. “The Andersonville Christmas Pickle.” Americus Times-Recorder (19 December 2007), Web edition (http://americustimesrecorder.com/local/x489050166/The-Andersonville-Christmas-Pickle : accessed 3 December 2010)
  3. “103d Pennsylvnia Volunteers, Company H Muster Roll.” Transcript by Alice J. Gayley, at PA-Roots (http://www.pa-roots.com/pacw/infantry/103rd/103dcoh.html : accessed 3 December 2010); citing Bates, Samuel P. History of the Pennsylvania Volunteers, 1861-1865, Harrisburg, 1867-1871.
  4. “Military: Civil War: Regimental Roster for the 103rd Pennsylvania Volunteers Infantry: A-L,” database, USGenWebArchives: Pennsylvania (http://files.usgwarchives.net/pa/1pa/military/cwar/103a-l.txt : accessed 3 December 2010), alphabetically arranged, entry for LOWER, JOHN, Private, Company H.
  5. 1860 U.S. Census, Clarion County, Pennsylvania, population schedule, Knox Township, Snydersburg P.O., pg 8 (handwritten), 198 (stamped), dwelling 49, family 49, George Lowery household; digital image, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com/ : accessed 3 December 2010); citing NARA microfilm publication M653, roll 1095.
  6. 1870 U.S. Census, Clarion County, Pennsylvania, population schedule, Knox Township, Lucinda P.O., pg 3 (handwritten), dwelling 18, family 18, John Lowers household; digital image, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com/ : accessed 3 December 2010); citing NARA microfilm publication 593, roll 1326.
  7. 1870 U.S. Census, Clarion County, Pennsylvania, population schedule, Knox Township, Lucinda P.O., pg 3 (handwritten), dwelling 17, family 18, George Lowers household; digital image, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com/ : accessed 3 December 2010); citing NARA microfilm publication 593, roll 1326.
  8. 1880 U.S. Census, Clarion County, Pennsylvania, population schedule, enumeration district (ED) 85, pg 13 (penned), dwelling 98, family 112, John Sower household; digital image Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 3 December 2010); citing NARA microfilm T9, roll 1118.
  9. 1900 U.S. Census, Clarion County, Pennsylvania, population schedule, Knox Township, enumeration district (ED) 13, 167 (stamped), dwelling 100, family 110, John Lauer household; digital image, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com/ : accessed 3 December 2010); citing NARA microfilm publication T624, roll 1329.
  10. 1910 U.S. Census, Clarion County, Pennsylvania, population schedule, enumeration district (ED) 11, pg 5B (penned), dwelling 78, family 80, John Lauer household; digital image, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com/ : accessed 3 December 2010); citing NARA microfilm publication T624, roll 1329.
  11. 1900 U.S. Census, Clarion Co., Pennsylvania, pop. sch., Knox Twp, ED 13, 167 (stamped), dwell. 110, fam. 110, John Lauer household.
  12. Jordan, John Woolf, Genealogical and Personal History of the Allegheny Valle, Pennsylvania, 3 vols. (Harvard University, Lewis Historical Pub. Co., 1912), Google Books edition (http://books.google.com/ : accessed 3 December 2010), 3: 798.

Comments

  1. Cindy Gates says:

    I am the Great-Great Granddaughter of John Lower (changed to “Lauer” after 1900) and the original author of the Christmas Pickle story as passed down from my grandmother who was raised by her Grandfather John Lower until his death. Contact me and I would be glad to give you the original, (corrected), and complete story. A story I am thrilled to see is being told (as he has wished). Thank you for giving him a voice from the grave.
    Cindy Gates

    • Cindy:

      Thanks for reaching out! I would LOVE to hear the real story. You can reach me at: climb [at] mynechimkigs.com

  2. Cindy Would love to hear the story as well! My grown children love the hiding of the pickle tradition. They have grown up with it. The pickle is hidden every Christmas in our house. Decorating the tree right now and we cant find our one inch pickle! :( Still time

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