I still remember the day when I learned that my family was weird.
I was in 5th grade, barely ten years old, and I was returning to school from Christmas break. My classmates and I were all miserable, of course, in that way that children understandably get when they are forced to leave their toys behind in order to learn math. It was unbearable to think of all that new STUFF just laying there at home, unplayed with. To compensate, me and the gang would swap war stories from over the break: the loot we scored, the siblings who tortured us; the extended family members we loved and hated. It helped fill those long, toyless hours.
When I was given an opportunity to share my experience, I thought they’d like to know about how I found the Pickle that year.
Ah, the Pickle! That glorious green gourd that has remained a Christmas staple in my family for as long as I can remember. Who doesn’t love the Pickle? You see, as the younger of two siblings, I had never found it before my brother in any year prior. I had finally triumphed. In the haze of my then-undiagnosed near-sightedness, I was at last able to spot it and win the reward I so richly deserved. Surely, my friends would understand the significance of that day. Surely, their Pickle hunts were just as hard-fought. Surely.
“Pickle?” they asked, perplexed.
I just laughed. My friends sure were funny, pretending like they didn’t know about the Pickle. Literally everyone knew about it without exception. However their confused expressions only persisted until they turned to smiles, and then jeers. Children, as they say, can be cruel.
As it turns out, the Christmas Pickle is not as common a tradition as I had assumed.
Twenty years later, I look back on my winters spent hunting that Pickle fondly. It’s weird, sure, but since then I’ve met many people with similar memories. There’s always a little rush of excitement when I meet a family who spent Christmas morning rummaging around a pine tree, looking for a fake pickle. After all, it’s the weirdness that makes these memories so special, and the pickle isn’t the only one. In my long travels, I’ve gathered more than a few interesting tales that would inspire incredulity in any ten-year-old who heard them.
The Bozo Gift
This is more of a prank than a tradition, but it’s one the whole family can enjoy–that is to say, the whole family excluding the one who received the Bozo Gift itself, who will be pointed at and ridiculed.
The gift grift is simple. My friend Anne from NJ explains, “So for us, it was a package of frozen fried clams from Howard Johnson’s. This was back when you could actually buy that stuff in the grocery store, which was probably thirty years ago.”
Suffice to say, it’s a storied tradition in her family. It doesn’t have to be fried clams, though. It could be tortilla mix, old socks, or for those with an appreciation for the Christmas aesthetic, a small bag of coal. Whatever it is, you wrap the Bozo Gift as nicely as possible, pick a stocking hanging over the fireplace, and slip it in when nobody’s looking. If the victim opens it without realizing, it’s their job to take care of it for a year before they decide on the next recipient. However, if they can identify the Bozo before the paper comes off, then whoever tried to trick them has to keep it… and try better next time.
There are tricks to this game, of course: ways of making sure you always pass off the trash. Wrapping the Bozo in new and creative ways would help disguise it and catch your chosen mark off guard. Other methods are far more devious. “People would keep it for years,” Anne tells me. “So everyone would, like, forget about it and lower their guard. Next thing they know: boom. Mummified clams. Nobody was safe.”
The Great Cheese Odyssey
Not all Christmas traditions, weird or otherwise, need to take place in the living room. Robert and Nick, two brothers from Ohio, take their Christmas on the road.
“Every Christmas we get in the car, drive to Wisconsin, and buy cheese,” Robert tells me.
“Yes,” Robert says. “They have that in Wisconsin, you know.”
Specifically, they go to Door County, Wisconsin to find their holiday prize. It’s not all high-quality cheese and gas station coffee on this road trip, though. First, the brothers stop by the Christkindlmarkt in Chicago, a German-style open air holiday market that crops up in cities throughout the country every year. There, you can purchase anything from ornaments and souvenirs to seasonal food and, most importantly, beer.
Then, it’s a pilgrimage up to the Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame to pay homage to Robert and Nick’s favorite team. They’re cheese-heads in more ways than one, you see. Besides, what says “Christmas spirit” more than five NFL championships and two Super Bowls under the mythical Vince Lombardi?
Finally, at the end of their adventure, they stop in Door County and pick out the linchpin of their holiday. “We like to go to Renard’s Cheese,” Robert tells me. “Best in the state, in my opinion.” While they’re not bringing home a sack full of toys, the brothers buy what they can and take it back home to pass out to the family. Just last year, I was lucky enough to find the brothers at my doorstep with a wheel of my own. I can certainly attest to this tradition: nothing beats watching the snow through your window with a mug of warm cider in one hand and a solid block of Wisconsin cheese in the other. It’s even better when you don’t have to do the legwork.
The Santa Firetruck
Anyone from New Jersey will be familiar with this tradition, but for you out-of-towners, it may sound a little strange. Every Christmas, in every township, the local fire department dresses one of its own as Santa Claus and drives him around the neighborhoods with sirens blaring.
This tradition has me feeling like a bit of a grinch. It hasn’t always been my favorite, but it’s certainly one I’ve been subjected to against my will for my entire life. Maybe the problem is having to listen to a firetruck’s siren wail around my block in the early morning when all I want to do is enjoy my time off. Maybe it’s being pelted in the head by candy canes when Saint Nick finally makes his slow way down my street. Or maybe it’s just the scenario itself that bothers me. Why would Santa ally with the fire department? Don’t they have more important things to do? What, is Santa suddenly too good for the mall or something?
Putting myself in the shoes of a little kid (assuming they’d fit), I guess I can see the appeal. Having Santa hitch an Uber directly to your front door is probably exciting. You can wave, you can get pictures taken, and you don’t even have to leave your front yard. Some townships even let you play on the firetruck itself, if you’re lucky.
I was never that kid. I was the kind of kid who spent his Christmas vacation staying up late watching TV and playing my Genesis. A 130-decibel wake up call was a tad abrasive, to say the least. But if the idea of having your neighborhood fire department allocate valuable resources toward taking Santa Claus on a tour of your street sounds appealing to you, stop on by New Jersey. While you’re at it, bring me some ear plugs.
The Christmas Pickle
I know you’ve been thinking it this whole time. “What in the world was he talking about before? Who puts a pickle in their tree?”
To be fair, it’s not a real pickle. Well, for some, it might be, but my Christmas was never THAT weird. No, Mom just liked to use a little glass ornament that she bought in a shop like any other decoration. It was smaller than a real pickle, perhaps, and a little glittery, but let me tell you: once she put that thing in the tree, it was practically invisible.
Of course, that was intentional. You see, the thrill of the Christmas Pickle is the contest. In my household, the name of the game was Two Boys Enter, One Boy Leaves. At Mom’s signal, my brother and I would scamper from our rooms and race for the tree, desperate to be the first to find the ornament. My brother took the cautious approach, like Hannibal surveying Cannae, searching from afar. Me? Head-first in the pine needles, every time. Getting sap in my hair was a real problem on Christmas morning. I DOVE for that pickle but was rarely successful. There’s a moral in this somewhere.
Regardless of how sappy my hair and hands got, it was worth it. The winner got a little special gift separate from all the others. It was never anything huge, usually just a box of candy that my brother never shared, but it didn’t matter. It wasn’t about the reward or the accolades. It was about winning. It was about the rush of conquest.
As I mentioned before, I’ve known many families who have the same tradition, but few of them know where their family got the idea. The origins of the Christmas Pickle are obscure. For a while it seemed the populace collectively assumed that it came from Germany, including my dear Mother, but it seems that we were all mistaken; this theory was debunked years ago. The current idea is that it started in America somewhere in the 19th century, but the original reason why we introduced a pickle, of all things, to the Christmas lexicon continues to elude historians.
It’s not always a pickle, either. Cierra from Virginia hunted for something else. “My mom would hide a specific angel icicle ornament in the tree,” she tells me. “Then, we’d come out and try to find it, and whoever did got to open a present early.” She paused and added, “I’ve never heard about any kind of pickle.”
I’m no theologian, but I believe there’s a huge amount of middle ground between pickles and angels. Perhaps the angels came first, and pickles later. Or maybe some rational citizen saw how silly the idea of a pickle was and said, “I think I have a better idea.” Regardless, nobody really knows where the Christmas Pickle originated. It remains one of the holiday’s weirdest traditions, and humanity’s greatest mystery. Probably.
Weird Traditions Around the World
Pickles, cheese, clams… what if I told you that fried chicken is another famous tradition? In Japan, KFC is synonymous with Christmas, thanks to a shockingly successful ad campaign back in the 70s. Despite the fact that only about 1% of the population celebrates the holiday, millions will buy a bucket or two (which comes with some cake and champagne) for a different kind of holiday feast.
Meanwhile, in Germany, good behavior is extorted from children just like in America. Some areas in Germany do things a little differently, though. Every year on December 5th, known as Nikolausabend, kids leave a shoe or boot outside their bedroom door. If they were good that year, they get gifts. But if they misbehaved, they get… well, they get a stick. I assume it’s for their parents to whoop them with for being such brats, but that’s just a guess.
In Wales, things get a little darker. A ceremony of debatably pagan origins is held where men hiding under white sheets dance and parade around town. Oh, and did I mention they carry around a horse skull mounted on a pole? A real, actual horse skull, so as to make it seem like they are some kind of spooky equine ghost.
The tradition is called Mari Lwyd and it is as old as Christmas itself. Some historians attest that it’s even older and may have less-than-cheerful beginnings. Regardless of where or why it started, many modern Welsh citizens still perform Mari Lwyd every year with all the joy and spirit you’d expect from a Christmas celebration. It’s just a little more unsettling than a pickle.
Catalonia has one of the strangest traditions I’ve heard so far. See, they have this log, right? Its name is Tió de Nadal. They dress the log in holiday colors, give it a funny little face, and then the children of the household are told to “feed” and care for it. Cute, right? It teaches kids compassion and responsibility while at the same time providing a tasteful decoration for the rest of the household to enjoy. It’s on Christmas Day that things get a little weird.
After the adorable little log has been nice and fed, the family put it in the fireplace and order it to relieve itself. If the log has been properly loved and cared for, then the… result… of this bodily function is gifts for the kids. Some families don’t have a fireplace, though, so instead they just beat the log with sticks until the gifts are presented. Honestly, it doesn’t sound much different than my usual Christmas dinner.
Embrace the Weirdness
We all have our own little ceremonies that we like to perform with our families. Like the horse ghosts of Mari Lwyd, all traditions come from some dark point in human history where we danced around trees in the hope we might get a little gift from it. What makes these traditions special are the memories they’re tied to and the people we share them with.
Whether you’re beating the poop out of a log or stuck waist-deep in a pine tree, hoping to find a secret pickle, the point is that you share these memories with your family: your brothers, your sisters, your mom and dad, your nieces and nephews, your aunts and uncles, or even just your friends – your pals, whose bond with you is only made stronger thanks to a wheel of cheese the size of your head.
My mom still hides that pickle ornament in the tree every year. Only now, I watch my two nieces scramble around for it. Lily, who is older, tends to find it almost every year. Abby, the youngest, struggles just as much as I did. I try to give her tips, but between you and me, I don’t think I ever did figure it out. Don’t tell anyone, but I still look for it secretly from my spot on the couch. I haven’t found it first in years, but I’ll always keep trying.