Posted by Juliana Szucs on December 17, 2014 in Ask Juliana

apickleAs a family historian, you’d expect that my household would be full of ethnic traditions that have been passed from generation to generation, but actually our family traditions are a bit of a smorgasbord from around the world.

My daughter has been embracing her German heritage lately and came home from the Chicago Christkindlmarket with a “German pickle ornament.” She told me I was to hide the pickle on the tree and when she found it, I had to give her a dollar. Since I have no known German ancestors, I wasn’t familiar with this tradition. Curious, I looked it up, and while there are a number of speculative theories on the origins of the pickle ornament, I didn’t see any evidence pointing to it being an old German custom.

When I was growing up, we used to put luminarias up and down the path to our house. These were simply paper bags filled with sand to weight them, with a candle burning inside. Our local church sold them for charity and I grew up thinking it was a local thing. Turns out luminarias, or farolitos as they’re also called, are a tradition of the Southwest U.S. and Mexico. Here in the Midwest, in some years the paper bags were no match for snow and high winds, but when they did stay lit, it was a beautiful and welcoming sight.

While we do have traditions regarding some of the treats we make for Christmas, there again, none seem to reflect any one particular place. While many of the recipes have been passed down from my grandparents, just as many were shared by friends and neighbors over the years.

I guess it shouldn’t be surprising. When I look at my AncestryDNA Ethnicity Estimate, I am probably as much of a hodgepodge as the traditions I find myself observing for the holidays. As families blended over the years, traditions evolved and so did the holiday season. As traditions and holidays come together, they bring people together, and isn’t that what this season is about?

While I’ll probably always be looking for ways to bring my heritage into the holiday season, I’ll also be embracing new traditions. The pickle? Yes, it’s hanging on my tree between the ornament that hung on my grandparents’ tree and the one with the Polish eagle that I bought a few years ago online. And I’ll probably give Maddy a dollar when she spots it, too.

Whether you’re celebrating Christmas, Hannukah, Kwanzaa, or some other holiday, I wish you peace, love, and happiness this holiday season.

Juliana Szucs

Juliana Szucs has been working for for more than 20 years. She began her family history journey trolling through microfilms with her mother at the age of 11. She has written many articles for online and print genealogical publications and wrote the "Computers and Technology" chapter of The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy. Juliana holds a certificate from Boston University's Online Genealogical Research Program.


  1. Ken

    My mother told me her grandmother used to hide a pickle on her tree, and it was supposed to be an old Germen tradition I asked some German people I know none of them heard of it, My great grandmother was from German Hungarian, and the pickle was an ornament given by Heinz in the 30s

  2. Leslie

    The time period in which my parents grew up there was much pressure to assimilate. When I had my family we did the research and began to revive the traditions which include hiding a pickle ornament in our tree.

  3. Joanne Hey

    I was on a Rick Steves tour of Germany Austria and Switzerland. I asked my tour guide Daniela who grew up in southern Bavaria about the pickle myth she said she had never heard of it and had many Americans asking questions about,it I just started laughing.

  4. Julie

    While living in Pennsylvania, I heard the pickle on the tree was a Pennsylvania Dutch thing. Maybe that’s where the German myth started, since they speak a German dialect?

  5. S.Gilman

    After living in central PA for just six months, a new friend gave me a pickle, without much more information about the tradition behind it, but she insisted that I needed one since I was a new Pennsylvanian. Definitely PA Deutch.

  6. Kathy B

    Although my mother’s family, German on her father’s side, did not celebrate the pickle tradition, my next door neighbor from Germany (not PA Deutch) celebrates with the pickle. Maybe it’s associated with certain local traditions in Germany.

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