Tuesday,  July 14, 2020  11:52 am

On location: Christmas Markets along the Rhine with AmaWaterways (and the case of the missing Christmas pickle)

On location: Christmas Markets along the Rhine with AmaWaterways (and the case of the missing Christmas pickle)
PAX is reporting on location from the AmaKristina, which is sailing along the Rhine, visiting famous Christmas Markets. Above: the "World's Largest Advent Calendar" in Gengenbach, Germany.
Michael Pihach

Michael Pihach is an award-winning journalist with a keen interest in digital storytelling. In addition to PAX, Michael has also written for CBC Life, Ryerson University Magazine, IN Magazine, and DailyXtra.ca. Michael joins PAX after years of working at popular Canadian television shows, such as Steven and Chris, The Goods and The Marilyn Denis Show.

Have you heard the one about the Christmas pickle?

The Christmas pickle is a tradition whereby an ornament, in the shape of pickle, is hidden in a Christmas tree and come Christmas morning, the first person to find the pickle receives an extra present and a year of good fortune.

The origin of this quirky holiday ritual is widely disputed.

Some say the concept was born out of clever marketing tactics by U.S. retailer Woolworths, which began importing glass Christmas tree decorations – a pickle being one them – from Germany into the United States in the 1890s.

Others say the pickle originated in Camp Sumter during the American Civil War. 

As the legend has it, a Bavarian-born Private, John C. Lower, was captured and taken to a prison camp, and on Christmas Eve, he begged a guard for pickle because he was starving. A pickle was offered, Lower survived, and upon returning home, he started a tradition of hiding a pickle in his family’s Christmas tree.

There was about 70 of us, merrily chatting away in the Lounge and Strauss Bar on board the luxurious AmaKristinaAmaWaterways’ 156-passenger river ship – when our jovial cruise manager, Nicki Drinkwater, got on the mic to dissect the many theories surrounding that pickle.  

The luxurious AmaKristina. AmaWaterways’ 156-passenger river ship, seen here in Breisach.

Drinkwater, who doubles as a wine specialist despite his last name (an irony he playfully enjoys), struggled, at first, to get everyone’s attention. But it was a challenge, we suspected, he anticipated.

After all, the excitement on board that Tuesday night was buzzing after cruising down the picturesque Rhine river from Basel, Switzerland, to Breisach, Germany, where we had docked, for the day, facing the vineyard-laden Alsatian region of France.

SERVICE WITH A SMILE. On board the AmaKristina, during the holidays, as part of its seasonal Christmas Market river cruise down the Rhine.

Everyone in the lounge – a mix of couples in their thirties and forties, mother-daughter duos, worldly travel agents and spry retirees – had something bright-eyed and bushy-tailed to say about their morning, which marked the first of many excursions through Germany and France’s much-celebrated Christmas Markets.

These magical markets, combined with Europe’s deeply-rooted holiday traditions, is the focus of a seasonal river cruise offered by AmaWaterways along the Rhine – and PAX (alongside some 50 Canadian travel agents) is currently experiencing it, exclusively, this week (Dec. 16-23).

The seven-night river cruise on board the AmaKristina starts in Switzerland, sails through Germany and France – stopping to explore iconic towns, landmarks and Christmas Markets along the way – and ends in the Netherlands, in Amsterdam.

CHRISTMAS CENTRAL. Guests of AmaWaterways can explore Christmas Markets along the Rhine, such as this one in Gengenbach, Germany, above.

It was that thrilling morning of excursions while docked in Breisach, on day two, that set the tone for what magical moments were to come.

Some stayed in Germany and ventured to Freiburg, a university city in southwest Germany’s Black Forest that’s famous for its reconstructed medieval old town, Freiburg Cathedral and, of course, it’s charming Christmas Market.

Others opted for Riquewihr, an enchanting village on the Alsace Wine Route in eastern France with cobbled streets, half-timbered winemakers’ shops, and rows of medieval and renaissance-period buildings peppered with Christmas ornaments, green wreaths and bright red ribbons.

The whimsical allure of Riquewihr’s Christmas Market, we can confirm, is unforgettable.

Riquewihr is where we decided to go (when cruising with AmaWaterways, you get many choices as far excursions go. They're all included, and they're all good). 

Here, we spent our morning sipping on hot glühwein (mulled wine) while passing bands of nutcrackers, teddy bears, Santas, snowmen, angels, sleds and bakeries offering samples of fresh gingerbread and sassy raspberry macaroons.

The whimsical allure of Riquewihr’s Christmas Market, we can confirm, is unforgettable.

Riquewihr, we learned, was the source of inspiration behind Belle’s hometown in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.

The tiny French town also looked oddly familiar – Riquewihr, we learned, was the source of inspiration behind Belle’s hometown in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.

Knowing this, it was impossible not to envision the famous Disney princess in her baby blue apron, wandering the storybook streets of Riquewihr with her nose stuck in a book while hearing townspeople shout “Bonjour!” from their windowsills.

Window sills decked with holiday decor in Riquewihr.

We eagerly re-told these stories, and more, over glasses of locally-sourced wine that night on the festive and stylishly-decorated AmaKristina – a floating, luxury boutique hotel, if you will – forgetting, if only for a moment, that our journey along the river Rhine was just beginning.

And then there was poor Nicki, our patient and diligent cruise director, wearing a Santa hat and elf sweater, who was just dying to tell us more about that Christmas pickle over a room full of clamourous chatter.

Suddenly, a hush went over the crowd. 

“I’ve hidden a Christmas pickle somewhere in this room,” said Nicki, over the mic.

Well you’d think he’d hidden a briefcase full of cash. As if it was on cue, everyone in the lounge suddenly sprung to their feet and let out a loud and sounding whoooo! as they turned the room upside down, rummaging through Christmas trees and suspicious nooks, in search of the missing pickle.

Within less than a minute, a beaming young female passenger, wearing an emerald green dress so divine that she could have been a Christmas ornament, emerged from the scuffle, with a bright green pickle in hand.

Nicki hoisted the pickle in the air and everybody cheered.

CASE CLOSED. AmaWaterways cruise manager, Nicki Drinkwater, reveals the ship's Christmas pickle.

The AmaKristina had already won many us over with its spacious staterooms, wellness amenities, top-notch food and extremely friendly staff (who made us feel like part of the family the moment we stepped on board). 

We knew we’d be seeing some of Europe’s most treasured towns and Christmas Markets.

But in that moment, if the case of the missing Christmas pickle taught us anything, it was this: this was not a stuffy ship, and this river cruise was going. To. Be. Fun!  

What’s it like sailing with AmaWaterways? What did travel agents think of the ship and Christmas Markets? 

Stay tuned as PAX brings you more from the AmaKristina as we continue our Christmas Market voyage along the Rhine!

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