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December 26, 2023 8 mins

The end of year celebrations often feel familiar and "known". But there are still some holiday stories out there that have the ability to leave us scratching our heads.

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Episode Transcript

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Speaker 1 (00:04):
Welcome to Aaron Manke's Cabinet of Curiosities, a production of
iHeartRadio and Grimm and Mild. Our world is full of
the unexplainable, and if history is an open book, all
of these amazing tales right there on display, just waiting
for us to explore. Welcome to the Cabinet of Curiosities.

For some children in the Midwestern United States, Christmas morning
begins with a scavenger hunt. They jump out of bed,
rush to the tree, and start digging through its branches.
Hidden amongst the pine needles, one lucky kid finds a treasure,
a green glass ornament shape like a gurkin. It's the
coveted Christmas pickle. The first child to grab it either
receives a special gift or gets to open their presence first,

but more importantly, they enjoy bragging rights for the rest
of the year. It's one of many weird and wonderful
holiday traditions in America. But what makes the Christmas pickle
especially strange is that nobody really knows where it came from. Now,
if you ask an average Midwesterner, they'll probably say that
it's a German thing passed down through the generations, which

does seem to make sense. The Midwest was once a
popular destination for German immigrants, including my ancestors, and pickles
are common in that nation's cuisine. But if you ask
actual German people, they probably won't have any idea what
you're talking about. According to The New York Times, a
twenty sixteen poll found that ninety one percent of Germans
had never heard of the Christmas pickle, even though it

was being widely attributed to their culture. So how did
this curious practice really begin. Well, there are a few
different legends about that. According to one story, there was
a German American soldier who fought in the Civil War.
At one point, he was taken captive and the prison
guard refused to feed him. He starved for weeks. Finally,
on Christmas Eve, the soldier felt his body beginning to

shut down. Certain that he would die, he begged his
capture to let him have one final meal, a single pickle. Miraculously,
this measley snack gave the soldier the strength he needed
to survive. When he made it home after the war,
he spread the tale of the relish that saved his life. Thus,
the Christmas pickle was born at least that's one version

of the story. Another one goes like this. Two Spanish
boys were heading home from boarding school for the holidays.
They were making the long trek on foot, and they
moved slowly. They realized that they wouldn't be home by
December twenty fifth, so on Christmas Eve, they decided to
stop and rest overnight at an inn. For whatever reason,
the innkeeper did not like these boys. They grabbed the

children and locked them inside a barrel of pickles. The
boys banged on the sides of the container, but no
one heard their screams. That is not until Saint Nicholas
made a stop at the end. He heard the children
yelling for help and freed them from their pickoly prison.
The boys eventually made it home, where they shared this
story of their incredible escape. This inspired people to hang
pickles on their Christmas trees in remembrance of the kids'

survival and Chris Kringle's good deed. Now, if these tails
sound a bit far fetched to you, I'm inclined to agree.
They're fun for sure, but they're probably not factual. In
all likelihood, the origin of the Christmas pickle is less
about magic and more about capitalism. You see. Beginning around
the eighteen forties, German glass blowers were producing all kinds

of unique food shaped holiday ornaments, fruits, nuts, vegetables. You
could put an entire glass garden in your tree if
you really wanted to. They were fairly popular in Europe,
for sure, but the FW. Woolworth Company wanted to capture
the American market too. Fast forward to the eighteen hundreds,
when that same business began importing German made glass to
the United States. To convince people to buy their weird products,

the FW. Woolworth Company spun a tail about the pickle ornament.
In particular, they claimed that hiding a glass girkin in
the Christmas tree was a long standing German tradition, even
though it actually wasn't. Nevertheless, if this story is true,
it seems like their marketing ploy paid off. The ornaments
became an integral part of some family's holiday traditions, especially

in the Midwest, and even now, nearly one hundred and
fifty years later, the Christmas pickle is still a pretty
big dill. On the night of March second of nineteen

seventy eight, two men tiptoed into a small cemetery the
graveyard was located in the hills above Lake Geneva in Switzerland.
It was beautiful and quiet, save for the sound of
the men creeping through the grass. Eventually they reached the
tombstone they were looking for. It was marked with a
birth date April eighteenth of eighteen eighty nine, and below
that was a date of death, Christmas Day of nineteen

seventy seven, belong to Charlie Chaplin, one of the most
famous actors who ever lived. Beginning his show business career
at just eight years old, Chaplin rose to fame as
a physical comedian during the silent film era. He went
on to work as an actor, writer, producer, and director,
gaining numerous awards and international acclaim. He's widely considered one

of the most important figures in the history of cinema. Now,
when Chaplin died, he was married to a woman named
Una O'Neill. She was the daughter of playwright Eugene O'Neill.
On their wedding day, she was eighteen years old and
Chaplin was fifty three. And now all of this had
been in the news, so the men in the cemetery
knew about Chaplain's career and his personal life. But and

here's the reason I'm telling you all of this. The
men were not there to pay respects, nor did they
want to spit on Chaplin's grave. No, they wanted to
rob it. The men pulled out their shovels and started digging.
They cracked open the actor's caskets and came face to
face with his corpse, which had been sitting in the
ground for over two months. It couldn't have been a
pretty sight, but the men weren't deterred. They lifted Charlie

Chaplin from his grave, closed the casket, and shoved the
dirt back in to cover their tracks, and then they
carried the actress body to a nearby cornfield, where they
reburied it. The following morning, Chaplain's widow, Una received a
call at her home in Switzerland. Two men told her
that they had stolen her late husband's body and that
the only way to get it back was to pay
them six hundred thousand dollars. If she didn't comply, they

threatened the lives of her and Chaplain's eight children. Unbeknownst
to the thieving duo, though Una was not a woman
who could be easily shaken, she basically laughed at them.
She later gave an interview about the situation, saying, and
I quote Charlie would have thought it rather ridiculous. Una
had no intention of paying the ransom. She didn't really
believe the men's threats either, but she did believe that

they would try to call her again, so she contacted
the local police, who tapped her phone line and began
monitoring every phone booth in the area. Five weeks later,
they caught the grave robbers. Their names were Roman Wardis
and Gansho Ganev. Although we don't have a lot of
information about them, we know they both worked as auto
mechanics and they'd come to Switzerland as political refugees from

Eastern Europe. They told police they were down on their
luck financially and that they had only committed the crime
for money. Now that they were caught, though, Roman and
Gancho led authorities to the cornfield where they had hidden
Chaplain's body, he was once again unearthed and returned to
the cemetery from whence he came, and then his family
opted to have his grave covered in a slab of
cement to deter future thieves. Roman, who was apparently the

mastermind behind the operation, was sentenced to four years of
hard labor. Gnho received a lesser punishment of eighteen months,
but that was not the end of the story. One
of the men's wives was so embarrassed by their behavior
that she sent a letter to Una apologizing for the
whole debacle. As unshakable as ever and shockingly generous given
the circumstances, Una responded, all is forgiven. I hope you've

enjoyed today's guided tour of the Cabinet of Curiosities. Subscribe
for free on Apple Podcasts, or learn more about the
show by visiting Curiosities podcast dot com. The show was
created by me Aaron Mankey in partnership with how Stuff Works.
I make another award winning show called Lore, which is
a podcast, book series, and television show, and you can

learn all about it over at the Worldoflore dot com.
And until next time, stay curious.

Aaron Mahnke's Cabinet of Curiosities News

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