I was on the hunt for a pickle ornament. Also for an infusion of my own family’s holiday German heritage. Traveling to Germany wasn’t a possibility this year but I’d spent part of December with family there a few years ago and was enamored of the country’s December street markets known as Christkindlmarkts (literally translated as “Christ child market”). While Christmas markets can be found all over Europe, particularly in Germany, Austria, Italy and France, the traditions of the German Christkindlmarkt go back to the Late Middle Ages in the German speaking parts of Europe. They were both a festive meeting place and an opportunity for townspeople to sell and buy homemade ornaments, cuckoo clocks, nutcrackers and toys with each town’s market having its own specialties.
Traditionally the markets were part of the Catholic Church’s Advent season which heralds in the Christmas birth of Christ. Today they have less of a religious connection (depending on where you are in Germany) offering locals and visitors an opportunity to mingle in an open air venue (usually a town square or plaza), listen and dance to music, eat (bratwurst, and a soft gingerbread called lebkuchen) and shop in preparation for Christmas. And because it’s cold in Germany in December, multiple stalls sell gluhwein, a hot mulled wine that comes with or without a shot of brandy in a colorful coffee mug that you can return or buy. The night time Christkindlemarkts are magical – all twinkling lights, the scent of gingerbread and the sounds of Christmas carols. If it happens to snow as it did while I was wandering the market, you’ll swear you’ve just stepped into a Hallmark card.
Which brings me to that pickle ornament and my longing for a budget version of the German markets. I live in Washington State and for most anyone craving a bit of European Christmas, the default destination is usually Leavenworth. But I’d been there and since I also wanted to feel like I was traveling out of the country, I headed north by train to Vancouver, Canada for their German Christmas Market which opens on November 21st and closes on Christmas Eve.
Located outdoors on the Queen Elizabeth Plaza downtown, the Vancouver market has all the trimmings of its European counterparts. German themed food and craft stalls surrounded a large Christmas tree and festive wooden stage that held a full schedule of musical groups. There was bratwurst and lebkuchen and since it was cold in Vancouver, everyone was bundled up in northwest Gortex with hands wrapped around steaming cups of gluhwein (with and without rum). There in a display of German tree ornaments, I spotted pickles for sale.
The American legend of the pickle ornament is that families in Germany hang it as the last ornament on the tree after children have gone to bed on Christmas Eve. In the morning the first child to find the pickle receives an extra gift from St. Nicholas and the first adult to spot it gets a year of good luck. However, like the myth of Santa Claus, the German pickle tradition is the product of American marketing. No self-respecting family in Germany hangs a pickle on their tree. Traditionally in Germany it is St Nicholas (the patron saint of children, students, teachers, sailors and merchants) who brings the presents on his feast day of Nikolaustag on about December 6th. Traditionally family gifts are opened on Christmas Eve, not Christmas morning .
However, like many families who immigrated to the U.S., mine, over the generations, has succumbed to the Americanized public relations version of the holiday season. Likely the myth of the pickle was a way to sell the fruit and vegetable Christmas tree ornaments that were imported from Germany. Nonetheless, I bought one in the Vancouver German Christmas Market and hung it on my tree next to the Santa, Elf on the Shelf and Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer ornaments. My pilgrimage to find a pickle was really just an excuse to re-enact a Hallmark card scene in a German Christkindlmarkt in Canada.