For as far back as I can remember, which lately is about 20 minutes ago, we as a society have been hearing that we need to get commercialization out of the holidays, especially Christmas. I am behind this idea 100 percent, because (1) we need to appreciate the true meaning of the season, and (2) I will spend less money.
Under close journalistic scrutiny, there are many holiday traditions where the real reason for their existence—to separate us from our money—has been obscured by the warm glow of nostalgia.
Take pickle ornaments, for example. Now I know what you’re thinking: “But Lare, a pickle ornament on your tree is an old German tradition that is supposed to bring you good fortune.”
The problem is that it isn’t true. Using my investigative skills as a journalist and an empirical analysis of my bank account, I have unlocked the truth about this cruel myth.
It seems that Woolworths, the five-and-dime store chain, was behind it all. Back in the 1880s, Woolworths perpetrated the story that German families would hide a pickle ornament deep in their Christmas tree, and the first child to find the pickle on Christmas morning would get an extra gift from Santa.
Woolworths did this because apparently no one was buying the pickle ornaments that were included with the glass ornaments of other vegetables Woolworths was buying from German ornament makers. Woolworths even gave the tradition a German name—Weihnachtsgurke, which, as we all remember from our fifth-grade German class, literally means holy night cucumber.
The pickle here is that the Weihnachtsgurke tradition created by Woolworths didn’t exist in Germany. Midwesterners of German extraction, however, fell for it hook, line, and sinker, and flocked to their local Woolworths stores to buy pickle ornaments and, of course, one extra gift to pay off the kid who found the pickle first. It was a perfect scheme.
Woolworths now is long gone, no doubt because the margin on glass pickle ornaments was smaller than the marketing department had calculated. But the lie lives on. For example, the town of Berrien Springs, Michigan, which, in the spirit of full disclosure is 15 miles down the road from where my grandparents owned a small farm, to this day has a Christmas pickle festival.
And, yes, I do have a pickle ornament, and, if my salary as a columnist is any indication, a pickle ornament does not bring good fortune unless you are the one making and selling pickle ornaments.
While we are exposing Christmas lies, I cannot avoid mentioning the greatest Christmas scam in modern history. I know there are those of you out there who will gasp in disbelief when you read it, but I’m talking about Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.
Rudolph first appeared in 1939 in a freebie coloring book intended to get more people to do their Christmas shopping at the Montgomery Ward department store in Chicago.
Rudolph was not a member of Santa’s team before this scam. That is evident from the historical record. In his treatise on Santa and his reindeer from 1823, ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, Clement C. Moore wrote that the protagonist saw “eight tiny reindeer,” not nine, and Santa went on to call them by name. Rudolph was not one of those names.
Imagine the tension and resentment that must have been felt by the rest of Santa’s team when Montgomery Ward, no doubt without Santa’s knowledge or permission, brought in this unknown reindeer as bait to lure kids and their parents into its store. Dasher and Dancer suddenly had to play second fiddle to a new lead reindeer, a position not based on a proven track record but simply because he had an unusual anatomical feature. And what about Donner and Blitzen? How did they feel about Rudolph being billed as “the most famous reindeer of all” after the centuries they had put in as Santa’s steady wheel deer?
It all seems quite unfair, but it was a huge marketing success for Wards, which no doubt raked in big bucks (pun intended!). And let’s not forget that Gene Autry also cashed in on the craze and probably made enough money off his number one hit record about Rudolph to buy the then-California Angels.
Like Woolworths, Montgomery Ward now is also defunct, so perhaps it is time to reconsider the place of these Christmas “traditions” in our annual celebrations. So join me in getting commercialization out of the holidays. I intend to start just as soon as I complete this gift order to Amazon.