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article imageOp-Ed: The origin of the 'Christmas Pickle'

By Karen Graham     Dec 2, 2013 in Lifestyle
Decorating the Christmas tree is an activity enjoyed by the whole family, and in Virginia and other parts of the South, tradition holds that on Christmas Eve, Mom or Dad will add one last ornament, the Christmas pickle, to the tree before going to bed.
Since the late 1890's, children growing up in the southern part of the United States have looked forward to getting up on Christmas morning and trying to be the first to spot the "Christmas pickle" hidden among the branches of the evergreen tree.
Historically, the finder was assured a reward or "good luck" in the coming year. Today, the finder is usually given a special gift for finding the pickle, and in some families, is also given the privilege of being the one to hide the pickle the following Christmas Eve.
The origins of many of our holiday traditions are lost in obscurity, leaving us to wonder where they came from, and if there is a particular meaning attached to them. It was always assumed the tradition of hiding a pickle in the Christmas tree came to us from Germany. But this has since been refuted, according to a number of sources.
It may be more reasonable to suggest the pickle, as a glass ornament, popped up in American culture in the 1890's, when Woolworth's began importing glass ornaments from Germany for sale during the Christmas season. A few years later, in 1893, France began exporting glass vegetable ornaments, including pickles, to America.
Scranton store. c. 1880-1882. This was the second successful store for the Woolworth Brothers. Photo...
Scranton store. c. 1880-1882. This was the second successful store for the Woolworth Brothers. Photo taken 30 November 1880.
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But to learn the real story behind the Christmas Pickle, one would have to backtrack a little further into American history, to the time of the Civil War. American's, both Northerners and Southerners alike are not proud of the fact there were prisoner-of-war camps on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line.
Dirty and ill-kept, the prisons were usually overcrowded, as well. As the story goes, Richmond, Va., the capital of the Confederacy, also had a prisoner-of-war camp called Libby Prison. It was located in the downtown area known as the Shockoe Bottom today. By 1864, Libby Prison was so overcrowded that prisoners were being transferred to other camps.
German-born Private, John C. Lower, a soldier with the 103rd Pennsylvania Infantry was captured in North Carolina in April 1864 and taken first to Libby Prison along with some other prisoners-of-war. It was quickly discovered he would have to be sent elsewhere, so officials put Lower in with a bunch of prisoners being transferred to a prison camp in Andersonville, Georgia, Camp Sumpter.
Andersonville Prison from   Andersonville Diary  Escape and List of the Dead    by John L. Ransom. P...
Andersonville Prison from ''Andersonville Diary, Escape and List of the Dead'', by John L. Ransom. Published: September 29, 1882
Private Lower didn't fair well while in Andersonville, as Fort Sumpter was called. Besides holding four times the number of prisoners it was built to hold, dysentery, scurvy and diarrhea were rampant, leading to the deaths of over 13,000 of the 45,000 Union soldiers held there before it was closed. Soon Lower had succumbed to the diseases running unchecked in the camp, and on Christmas Eve 1864, as he lay starving and near death, a guard happened by.
Lower begged the guard for a pickle, just one, to eat before he died. The guard, taking pity on the emaciated man, found him a pickle, and according to Lower family history, Private Lower miraculously survived, saying the pickle, "by the grace of God, gave him the mental and physical strength to live."
The following year, when the war was over, Private Lower was allowed to go back home to his family in Pennsylvania, but he was to never forget the miracle that had occurred on that Christmas Eve in 1864. From that time on, every Christmas Eve, a glass pickle ornament was placed in the boughs of the family's Christmas tree, to be found by a lucky child the following morning.
As traditions go, the Andersonville Christmas Pickle story is purely an American tale, right up there with fanciful stories like "Paul Bunyon and "Babe, the Great Blue Ox," or "Pecos Bill." But that's the fun and mystery of traditions, and that make them worth keeping.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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