by Rev. John H. Farmer
Ten years ago, Hazel and I traveled to Myrtle Beach to be with our new grandson Porter and his parents over the Thanksgiving holiday. Our daughter Jenny, her daughters Megan and Shelby and our first great-granddaughter Elizabeth, joined us there. What a wonderful holiday we experienced; we even had two adopted holiday sons, Northern Neckers Justin Burke and Jeff Pittman, join us. We all held hands and thanked the Lord for our reunion and holiday fare.
Exponentially that group of Northern Neckers has grown by fifteen. Jeff Pittman married Lydsey on Yorktown Beach. They have three kids: Abigail, Sydney and Brady and live in Tennessee. Justin married Melissa at the confluence of the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay. They now have two kids: Finley and Pearl and live in Weems. Granddaughter Megan, along with hubby George, now lives in Irvington with their three children. Granddaughter Shelby married David Malone and with their two girls lives in east Tennessee. Son Rob Pittman and wife Sarah Beth, married at the Irvington Baptist Church, have added Nolan to their clan and are living in Kilmarnock.
Now, our naked plastic tree awaits decoration time, interrupted by Hazel’s Bank retirement festivities, daughter Jennifer’s nurse practitioner’s Alabama graduation and a busy Santa schedule. This week we must pause long enough to adorn our tree.
1800s tree ornaments were apples and nuts, along with paper streamers and bits of shiny metal foil and real candles. Evergreen trees represented the certainty that life would return in the spring.
For German families in whose homes the first evergreen trees resided, food, gingerbread, or other hard cookies, would be baked in the shape of bells, fruits, stars, hearts and angels. Some went to tummies, others to the tree.
Americans began to string long strands of cranberries or popcorn to circle their trees. Small gifts decorated the tree, sometimes contained in little intricately woven baskets, nestled in the crook of a bough, or just hanging by a thread or piece of yarn.
Elsewhere creative ornaments of lace, paper or other materials showed the variety of interests and talents of their makers. It became harder and harder to actually see the tree beneath the ornaments.
Early trees were decorated with the creative efforts of the loving hands of family and friends. In the latter part of the 19th century various German entrepreneurs began to make ornaments that were mass-produced and sold strictly as Christmas ornaments.
The area around Lauscha, long known for its glass making, was the hub of the glass ornament trade in Germany. Firms which had been making glass barometers, canes, ointment bottles, goblets, bulls-eye glass window panes, eyes for stuffed animals and brilliantly colored marbles discovered that they could diversify into making molded glass ornaments. Initially replicating fruits, nuts and other food items, they soon branched out and began to manufacture hearts, stars and other shapes that had been created out of cookies but now had the added dimension of a wide color palette enhanced by the luminosity of the glass itself.
Eventually the glass blowers of Lauscha, Germany, were creating molds of children, saints, famous people, animals and other forms. Nearly everyone in the town was involved in some way in the creation of Christmas ornaments with whole families working either in a factory or in a home-based foundry.
F.W. Woolworth and his 5 & Dime, early American mass merchandiser, began importing German glass ornaments into this country in the 1880s. By 1890 it is rumored that he was selling $25 million dollar’s worth of glass ornaments.
For generations, people have been hiding a glass ornament—most likely from Lauscha—in the shape of a green pickle. The rationale for the pickle is that German parents started doing so to reward the most observant child in the family. The first one to spot the pickle got an extra present from St. Nicholas on Christmas morning. Don’t tell anybody, but truthfully most Germans have never heard of the pickle ornament. Well, so much for oral tradition, eh?
The pickle’s story involves a Bavarian immigrant who came to America to fight for the North in the not-so-Civil War. Captured by the Confederates, he was confined to the notorious Andersonville prison. Bavarian John Lower (Hans Lauer?), starving and near death, persuaded a jailer to get him a pickle to eat. Buoyed both mentally and physically by eating the pickle, he survived and began his own tradition of hiding a small glass pickle ornament in the family Christmas tree. Its finder on Christmas morning would benefit from a year of good luck.
St. Nicholas traditionally comes to visit German children on the fifth or sixth of December. German children traditionally open their presents on Christmas Eve.
These days most of our ornaments, like wise men, traveled to us from the Orient.
Another fun tradition is to place a pink peppermint pig and hammer amongst the branches, so that a hardy “whack” offers the giggling kids around the tree a tasty snack.
Borrow any old tradition or make your own new ones. Just be sure that as we decorate our trees and play with the kids that we tell the story of Jesus in the manger and how all this tradition of gift giving is commemorative of the three wise men who brought gifts to Baby Jesus.