Have you heard of the Christmas Pickle? Neither had I.
Apparently this “old German tradition” involves hiding a pickle, or a pickle-shaped ornament, deep in the branches of the Christmas tree. The first child to find it on Christmas morning gets an extra present. And there I was thinking it was just a description of my life two days before Christmas.
There are two puzzles in the history of this old German tradition. The first is that the most popular area for celebrating it is in the Midwestern United States. The second is that if you ask an actual German about their ancient pickle tradition, nine out of ten (at least) will say “Never heard of it”. In fact it doesn’t seem that anyone, anywhere in the world, had heard much about it before the late 19th century, when – surprise! – Christmas tree ornaments became widely sold.
“Traditions” range from the merely habitual through the manufactured to the very odd. Sometimes the reason disappears but the tradition is fiercely protected. For centuries the Royal Navy had a tradition a giving sailors a tot of rum daily. When this started, rum was healthier than rancid water. The tot was finally abolished, amidst much mourning, in 1970, when the Navy became concerned about sailors’ ability to operate machinery safely. Apparently in bygone years it had been quite safe to climb a hundred-foot mast and shuffle out to the yard arm.
December is full of tradition, and we are going to love them. Advent calendars which no longer have any discernible connection to Advent. Hauling trees (trees!) inside the house and putting lights and tinsel on them. Hanging odd things from the ceiling. Singing songs seldom heard at any other time of year. Insisting that a fat man in a red suit, heedless of all the health and safety requirements, circumnavigates the world at over 1,000mph, pausing only to slide down numerous chimneys inches wide. And pretending it’s snowing.
Christmas in 21st-century UK, and much of the world, is almost its own free-standing tradition independent of roots – pagan, Christian, or otherwise. It’s perfectly possibly to celebrate it simply to chase the feel-good factor.
But it is worth reflecting on origins. Although centuries ago Christians hitched a ride on a midwinter festival when they picked a season to celebrate the birth of Christ, we still wouldn’t recognise Christmas without Christianity. Carols. Angels. Gifts. The message of “goodwill to men”. Even the fat man in the red suit is a caricature of a 3rd-century Christian Bishop. Why did this start?
In the absolute conviction that it marked the most important event in history. A world past self-help, entered by its Creator, in order to join his life to ours and so give us the kiss of life. The birth of a baby who could overcome the darkness in us, carry your life and mine to the grave, and then break us out of the tomb. Confirmation that God’s desire for the Earth was always, in the words of Luke 2:14 “Peace, goodwill toward men.”
Happy Christmas and all blessings.
Andrew Pearson, Minister for Albury