Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Why Put the Pickle on the Tree?

For the past several years, my family has practiced the tradition of rushing out on December 23rd to grab the least dead tree we could find and throwing on our decorations to enjoy it until the nearest weekend. This year, due to some rather significant changes, we got an earlier start on our Christmas decorating and actually have our tree up early so that we can enjoy it all month long. It's a beautiful tree; a little over seven feet tall, wrapped in enough lights that it can illuminate the entire living room by itself, decorated with shatterproof plastic bulbs and a handful of glass ones, topped off with a glowing star and with a “German” Christmas pickle hidden somewhere in the branches.

I really love our Christmas tree. There's just one thing that's nagging at me.

Why did I have a tree chopped down and put in my living room anyway? What the hell am I celebrating?

I do not mean this in the “I am an atheist, so what does it mean when I celebrate a Christian/pagan holiday” sense, I mean quite literally, why do we do this? You can point to the historical origins of Christmas trees, but that will not necessarily explain why we continue to do it. For that matter, why Christmas lights? Why Santa Claus? What do any of these traditions have to do with my family?

You probably did not click on the link in the first paragraph about the German Christmas pickle, did you? You see, this year we received a “Christmas pickle,” a plastic ornament shaped like a pickle that is hidden in the tree and then searched for on Christmas day to give the person who finds it good fortune for the next year. According to the packaging, it's based on a German custom. I have no doubt that it will become one of my family's personal holiday traditions.

But it has no actual basis in German tradition (as that link discusses). And even if it did, it has no basis in my family's tradition. We aren't German. We don't have any reason to uphold German traditions, let alone German traditions that the Germans are not even aware of. So why put the pickle on the tree?

One of my favorite Christmas movies is Santa Claus Is Coming to Town, a stop-motion film from Rankin-Bass. One of the reasons I like it is that it just pulls origins for Christmas traditions straight out of its ass. It invents reasons for reindeer, stockings, Santa coming down the chimney, and an explanation for how he managed to became the worlds most prolific voyeur. That movie is well aware that no one knows why we participate in the traditions and just makes up reasons as it goes along. So, again, why put the pickle on the tree?

It is tempting to look at the historical origins as the reason. And in some cases, this is valid. The fact that Jesus' birth has historically been celebrated on Christmas explains why a Christian family would put up a Nativity display, for example. But the Tannenbaum's origins don't explain why modern American families of non-German origin would continue with the tradition. And how do I justify putting up images of Santa Claus in his bright red coat when I'm really more of a Pepsi fan? These traditions may have made sense to the cultures in which they originated, and it makes sense for people who want to participate in the legacy of that tradition, but I still don't know why I should put the pickle on the tree.

I realize that I probably sound ridiculous at this point, for the simple fact that it's fairly obvious that we take part in these traditions because they're fun and enjoyable. I'm asking “why” in a situation that doesn't need a justification. But, really, far be it from me to demand a justification for anything! I don't want anything justified, I just want it explained. Or, more truthfully, I want to make a point in the course of asking for an explanation.

Look at Chanukah. Why are the various traditions upheld during that celebration? Well, because it's celebrated by Jews who are taking part in the traditions that earlier Jews took part in for the sake of celebrating some aspect of Jewish culture, in this case, the Maccabean revolt and the rededication of the temple. When asked why they light the candles in the Menorah, they can say that it is because they want to celebrate their heritage.

Christmas, however, is full of traditions we no longer can explain, apart from just doing them because our families have always done them. This, at this point, is inevitable. And, hell, the traditions are still fun and there's certainly no reason to discontinue them (I don't want Christmas without Christmas trees). But, I think we have an excellent opportunity here. Since we cannot explain our traditions, why not create some more traditions that we can explain? Traditions particular to our families, traditions that we can create the significance for, traditions that our friends and loved ones actually know the origin of.

Gather round kids, it's time for the annual raising of the BAC! Let me tell you the story of the first time Grandpa got shitfaced in his Santa suit, and then we'll take turns betting on which article of clothing he will befoul first. Yay Christmas!

For example, start putting a plastic pickle in your Christmas tree to remind you and your family of that first Christmas in a different house.

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