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For 50 years, Howard Wilkinson has been covering the campaigns, personalities, scandals, and business of politics on a local, state and national level. He's interviewed mayors, council members, county commissioners, governors, senators, and representatives. With so many years covering so many politicians, there must be stories to tell, right?

About that Christmas pickle...

christmas pickle
Howard Wilkinson
THE pickle that hangs on Howard Wilkinson's Christmas tree each year.

It usually starts around Thanksgiving.

My Facebook page and Twitter account light up with friends, near and far, demanding an answer to a single question.

It's not How ya doin' or How old are you going to be on this birthday, or So, what are you getting me for Christmas?

Nothing like that. One question and one question only:

Where's the pickle?

That’s right, the pickle. The Christmas Pickle.

The pickle I have put on my Christmas tree for decades now.

No, not a real pickle. Not the kind of pickle you eat with a Dagwood sandwich. You really wouldn't want to eat a pickle that had been hanging on a pine tree from shortly after Thanksgiving until Epiphany.

It would be pretty gross, I'm sure.

No, this is a green glass ornament (it looks good enough to eat) that helps decorate my tree. It is always the first ornament – or nearly the first – to go up on my Frasier Fir.

Hey! Stop making fun of me! I am not the only person on Earth who has a pickle on the Christmas tree. There are millions of us.

It's just that most of us don't talk about it much.

Except me. I'm the big dope who posts pictures of his Christmas Pickle on social media every year and receives dozens of responses – some appreciative, some comical, others just quizzical.

Stop laughing at me. This is your last warning.

OK, you are no doubt an open-minded person or you would not find yourself on wvxu.org today reading actual news before stumbling across this Tales from the Trail column.

So, being open-minded, you may be asking yourself, So why a pickle? On a Christmas tree? What does this signify?

Allow me to explain. There are several competing theories about the origin of said pickle. I have my own, which I believe to be true. And I am a well-known scholar on the subject – qualified to teach a course on the Christmas Pickle at the University of Cincinnati's Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. Except nobody has asked me to do that.

At any rate, the bottom line of the Christmas Pickle is that, in households where the tradition lives on, it is hidden on the tree. On Christmas morning, the first child in the family to find the pickle receives an extra little Christmas gift.

Now, there are no children in my household, which is too bad, because I already know where the pickle is. Some people believe I am a prime example of arrested development and behave like a 12-year-old, so I feel justified in awarding myself an extra Christmas gift.

There are many people who assume that the Weihnachtsgurke, or Christmas Pickle, is a German tradition dating back hundreds of years. But in 2016, YouGov, an international polling firm, asked the German people if they had heard of the Weihnachtsgurke. Only seven percent said yes.

This is enough to convince me that if the Christmas Pickle is a long-standing German thing, it's a pretty lame one. And Germans do love their pickles.

But I think we have to look elsewhere.

A website called whychristmas.com offers two rather bizarre explanations.

One has to do with a Union soldier in the Civil War who was born in Bavaria. He was starving to death in a Confederate prison camp. He asked a guard for one last pickle before he died. The guard felt bad for him and found a pickle for the soldier. He ate it, and, so the story goes, it gave him the mental and physical strength to carry on.

That must have been one potent pickle.

We're not buying that one either.

Another rather bizarre tale involves St. Nicholas, whose Holy Day of Obligation is on my birthday, Dec. 6, although St. Nick had it first.

It goes like this: In medieval times, two Spanish boys were traveling home from a boarding school for the holidays. When they stopped at an inn for the night, an evil innkeeper killed the boys and put them in a pickle barrel. That same evening, St. Nicholas stopped by the inn, found the boys and miraculously brought them back to life.

Well, I leave that one up to you.

This is a most plausible, the most sensible explanation of the Christmas Pickle I have ever come across. If an explanation of a glass pickle can be sensible.

I mean it. Stop laughing.

My explanation involves F.W. Woolworth Co., which, from the time it first opened its doors in 1878 until the last store closed in 1997, was one of the most successful of a uniquely American retail phenomenon – the five-and-dime store.

Just about every American town of any size had a Woolworth's. Mine was in Dayton, Ohio, on Main Street, and was one of my favorite stops on my childhood jaunts via trolley buses to downtown.

I'd always head straight for the pet section and, if I had a little money, I would scoop a goldfish or two out of the tank and take them home to our family goldfish bowl.

This was always a sentence of death for the goldfish, with no possibility of parole. I couldn't keep the poor little guys alive. I feel guilty to this day.

Anyway, enough of my problems.

In the 1880s, Woolworth stores received a massive shipment of glass Christmas ornaments from Germany, all in the shapes of various fruits and vegetables – including an extraordinary number of pickles.

You could never accuse a five-and-dime chain of not knowing how to market products. About the same time the Woolworth pickles hit the shelves, the story started spreading all over America that the Christmas Pickle was a very ancient German tradition.

The pickle was to be the last ornament hung on the tree, and the first little munchkin to find it on Christmas morning got an extra treat.

Millions of Americans bought into this.

Now, nearly a century and a half later, it is not the tradition it once was. But, I swear to you, I am not alone. There are many others still hiding a pickle on their Christmas trees.

There is even a small town in Michigan, not far from Lake Michigan, called Berrien Springs. There, each early December, the good people of Berrien Springs line the streets for the annual Christmas Pickle Parade.

It includes the parade organizers tossing pickles to the crowd from a pick-up truck, high school marching bands, and Abraham Lincoln behind the wheel of a mini-van. The Pickle Prince and Princess march in the parade, giving the royal wave to their loyal subjects.

All of this is presided over each year by someone designated as the Grand Dillmeister.

My great ambition in life now is to one day be named the Grand Dillmeister in Berrien Springs. It would be marvelous!

OK, go ahead and laugh at me now.

This story was first published Dec. 14, 2018. 

Read more "Tales from the Trail" here