The Christmas Pickle

By Sally Gosen Case

The box of wondrous ornaments had belonged to my Austrian great-grandmother. I had no conscious memory of the stern woman in the photos, her clothing severe, hair piled high on her head. I saw no logical connection between her and the strange and amazing things we brought out every Christmas: oddly-shaped marvels of satiny pink glass, shining multicolored spheres, charming animals and an exquisitely-crafted pickle.

We treasured them and unwrapped each with great care. They adorned every one of my childhood Christmas trees; our only loss was the grotesque but somehow dapper little frog. One Christmas my young brother plucked it from the tree and popped it into his tiny mouth, instantly crushing it into a thousand pieces of antique Austrian glitter. Somehow no harm came to him from the minute shards he may have swallowed as my mother frantically retrieved the froggy remains.

Years cycled by, measured rounds of love and hard work. I was a teenager when I began to understand that we were slowly losing our beloved farm. That terrible and long-dreaded day had to come at last; no amount of labor could change the realities of market prices and loan payments due. We loaded a great many things onto our faithful old pickup truck and drove away into a new but uncertain future. A box tumbled onto the road: my great-grandmother’s ornaments. We left it on the highway, a crumpled box filled with my mother’s shattered childhood memories. There are some things that are impossible to mend. There are times when it is better to just look forward.

We built a new house and made a new farm. We spent long winter evenings crafting ornaments to decorate our tree, fashioning a new family history together as the seasons came and went.

Many years later I found myself a widow with a teenager of my own. Christmastime has been hard for me but harder still for him. His friends have real families; we are only two. The memories crowd close as we decorate, reminders of lost love and forever-altered futures.

One Christmas someone gave my son a pickle ornament. He brought it home, bewildered. It is not a pretty thing; no craftsman’s hand has ever touched this mass-produced oval of shiny green plastic. I hung it on our tree though. I told my son, “When I was a girl, we always had a pickle on our tree.” I told him about his great-great-grandmother, a strong and brave woman who had made a new life for her family in a strange country. I told him about the abandoned ornament box and how my family had made a new life on a new farm.

Now every year we hang the pickle on our Christmas tree. Through my stories, my son has found a part of himself, a part of his history and made it his own. He listens to Handel while he sets up his Christmas carousel, bought in a thrift shop and so warped and worn that it needs constant adjustment to keep it spinning. Round and round, the shepherds circle the Holy Family. Out in the kitchen are the lebkuchen he makes, each one glazed and decorated with flowers of almonds and candied fruit. The cookie jar is filled with fragrant pfeffernusse. My great-grandmother would feel right at home, though she might be bewildered by the fact that he gets his old-country inspirations and even some of his recipes off of the internet. She never returned to Austria, but he can visit the places she knew with the click of a mouse.

Some say there is an old German tradition that the pickle ornament brings good luck to the person who finds it on the tree. Others say that there is no such tradition. For me, though, the pickle is a symbol of the memories we treasure, the things we have lost in life, and the new beginnings we have made. That is all the luck I need.

About this writer

  • Sally Gosen CaseSally Gosen Case lives and writes on the beautiful Oregon coast. Her poetry and nonfiction have appeared in a variety of magazines, including Horticulture, Mary Jane’s Farm, and The Storyteller. Sally and her son coauthor an Oregon travel blog, casingoregon.com.

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