Answer Man

Trying to find the origins of ornament will put you in a pickle

The Christmas pickle ornament probably didn’t originate in Germany.
The Christmas pickle ornament probably didn’t originate in Germany. World Market

Q: Our family still hangs a pickle ornament on our tree. We think it’s for good luck, but we’ve never known the real reason or its origin. What can you tell us to make our Christmases merrier?

N.T., of O’Fallon

A: This has been a dilly of a puzzle for historians to figure out, but a leading theory may leave a sour taste in your mouth. If you think Christmas has become too commercialized today, wait until you hear that the pickle custom may have started as a marketing ploy by the F.W. Woolworth Co. to help push German glass ornaments at its U.S. stores in the 1880s.

Of course, that’s not what merchants want you to believe.

Crate & Barrel, for example, offers this heartwarming story about the green gherkin on its website:

“An age-old German good luck emblem, this realistic, hand-painted glass ornament adds a touch of legend and humor to holiday decorating. According to tradition, the first child to find the pickle ornament, which parents hide deep within the tree’s boughs, gets an extra gift from St. Nick.”

Another story says the first adult to find it is guaranteed good luck in the coming year. There’s just one itsy-bitsy thing wrong with this tale. Historians say they’ve found no evidence that the “Weihnachtsgurke” ever took root in Deutschland — at least not before it was imported from the United States.

Oh, it’s possible. For example, early German blown-glass ornaments in the mid-1800s often were made in the shape of fruits, vegetables and nuts, so maybe some München family took pity on a warty-looking pickle ornament gathering dust on some store shelf. So they brought it home and, in the mischievous spirit of a Chevy Chase or Frank Costanza, invented the myth of It’s the Great Pickle, Charlie Brown.

Possible, but few seem to jump on this German bandwagon. So how did this odd tradition begin? Theories abound, so take your pick(le):

According to one tale, a Bavarian immigrant named John Lower became ill while imprisoned at the infamous Andersonville Civil War POW camp and begged for one last pickle before he died. It’s the last thing I’d ask for in such a situation, but a guard took pity and granted his request.

Lo and behold, Lower recovered, so when the war was over, he returned home and began hanging a pickle in his Christmas tree to give thanks for his good fortune. However, since glass ornaments weren’t available for at least another decade, it would have had to have been a real gherkin, so goodness knows what it looked or smelled like by the time the tree came down.

Another legend takes us to Berrien Springs, Mich., the self-proclaimed Christmas Pickle Capital of the World. According to the burgermeisters there, the pickle dates back to the Middle Ages, when a cruel innkeeper used a pickle barrel to trap two Spanish boys at home from boarding school on Christmas break. Fortunately, St. Nick rescued them by tapping on the barrel with his staff. It’s more than likely a fanciful piece of whimsy, but I’m sure Berrien Springs residents still enjoy their chocolate-covered dill pickles every year (no joke).

Maybe you’re beginning to see why the marketing department at F.W. Woolworth may have been the true culprit once German ornaments began arriving in the United States by the boatloads in the late 19th century. But whatever the real story, it remains a fun tradition for many — and it perhaps keeps kids busy hunting for the pickle rather than immediately ripping open every present in sight.

So, Merry Christmas to all — and maybe enjoy a pickle to help you pucker up underneath the mistletoe.

Q: Did you know that the famous Barbra Streisand song “People” was actually written for the TV show “Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol” but was rejected?

Todd Eschman, of Belleville

A: I wouldn’t go spreading that “fact” to too many people. According to Darrell Van Citters, who wrote a book about the beloved 1962 holiday favorite, it’s simply not true.

Van Citters says composer Jule Styne and Bob Merrill, his new lyricist, had hit a creative roadblock as they were writing music for a new Broadway musical called “Funny Girl.” Perhaps to relax, they accepted producer Lee Orgel’s invitation to write songs for “Christmas Carol.”

One day when Orgel stopped by to see how things were going, he heard Styne and Merrill singing “People” and thought it was sensational. But Styne quickly told him the song was for “Funny Girl,” not the myopic Magoo.

Maybe he should have tried it out on “Christmas Carol” viewers first, however. According to Theodore Taylor’s biography of Styne, “Funny Girl” producers did not include the song in early tryouts of the show because they did not like it. But Merrill was persistent, and when Streisand finally sang it one night, the audience stopped the show with roars of approval and it quickly became a signature song for her.

Today’s trivia

Which phenomenally popular game did Milton Bradley introduce in 1978 during a star-studded party at New York City’s glamorous Club 54? (Hint: Rejected proposed names included Tap Me and Feedback.)

Answer to Saturday’s trivia: Remember Charlie Drake’s complaint in that 1961 politically incorrect song “My Boomerang Won’t Come Back”? Well, if that were the case, David Schummy, of Australia, would have had a major problem finding his a few years ago. On March 15, 2005, Schummy set a Guinness record for the “longest throw of an object without any velocity-aiding feature” by hurling his boomerang 1,401.5 feet — more than a quarter mile — at the Murrarie Recreation Ground in Queensland, Australia. The record still stands, according to the Guinness website.

Roger Schlueter: 618-239-2465, @RogerAnswer