or, One Swine’s Christmas Tale of Gratefulness
It must be the weirdest Christmas tradition ever. I don’t know what ever possessed my grandmother to buy that first Peppermint Pig one fateful Christmas. She proceeded to declare we must insert the pink candy swine into its felt sack, pass the enclosed pork around the dinner table, and pummel the poor pig with the tiny yet heavy hammer in turn. Since we don’t disobey Grandma, especially on Christmas, we all did it.
Before taking a turn beating the Peppermint Pig, each family member was to recite one thing for which he was grateful. Looking back over the past year, everyone could find something for which to say thanks. A job. A new house. A new baby. Good health. Each grateful remembrance was christened with a whack on the pig, then passed to the next person. At last everyone had counted their blessings, and the pig was found beaten to death. We partook of a wafer-sized bite of the pig in meditation; silence overtook the table. Then off we ran to play with our new Christmas toys.
Grandma is in Heaven for Christmas now. Every year, my sister sends me a Peppermint Pig. My in-laws look forward to our dining-room celebration of God’s goodness and our gratefulness each year after the Christmas dinner has been devoured. Each member’s simple thanks becomes a reminder of our growth and His grace. A new citizenship. A new career. A passing grade. A puppy. Read the Bible in a year. Reconciled to a family member.
It is more than a piece of candy. It tastes far sweeter than syrup. It is the stuff that holds family together, and it feels a lot like love.
The History of the Peppermint Pig
I received so many questions about the background of the Peppermint Pig that I decided to do some more research. Unable to find the swine’s story online, I called the owner of Saratoga Sweets, exclusive maker of the Peppermint Pig. Mike Fitzgerald was kind enough to fill me in on the history.
The very first Peppermint Pig was created in 1880 by Jim Mingay right there in Saratoga Springs, New York. Jim’s father was an apothecary, but Jim did not wish to join the family business. Instead, he became a candy maker at Curtis and Frasier Candy Company. It was there he began the Peppermint Pig tradition and continued it until he retired in the 1890s.
Creating a peppermint candy at this time was quite remarkable, even revolutionary, Mike told me. Peppermint was used in elixir, not treats. The candy cane itself would not be introduced for another decade. Jim’s creation was ahead of its time. It is wondered if his father’s influence – or stash – may have contributed to this invention.
The big mystery, though, is “Why did he make a pig?” No one knows for certain the answer. He may have been drawn to the pig’s association with prosperity and good fortune. Since the Middle Ages, wealth has been symbolized by the pig, since the pig itself does no work. Only well-off farmers could support a free-loading animal, and this remained true for centuries. From a candy-maker’s view, the pig was easier to cast than other animals, like a horse, because of its compact body design. Whatever Jim’s reasons, the Peppermint Pig quickly became a holiday symbol itself.
Candy makers in Saratoga Springs caught on to the Peppermint Pig craze, and for several decades there were pigs every Christmas from many local makers. But like many wonderful traditions of yester-year, the pig soon retired. The last Peppermint Pig was made in the 1930s.
Saratoga Springs never forgot their beloved Peppermint Pig tradition. It was taught in the schools, talked about around the holidays, and even memorialized in the museum. In 1988, Mike Fitzgerald viewed the cast of the Pig in the museum, and he knew the tradition must live on.
That year, Saratoga Sweets made 60 Peppermint Pigs in honor of their city’s rich candy-making heritage and the Christmas tradition the Pig stands for. The local paper ran just a line, mentioning that the shop would sell the sweets again after the community had gone decades without their beloved Christmas mascot. Senior citizens waited in the rain for the shop to open. Some brought their grandchildren. All brought warm memories of Christmases gone by. The pigs were sold before the line was finished. And the tradition was reborn.
Now Mike and his crew at Saratoga Sweets sell over 130,000 Peppermint Pigs each year. They are proud to say that the pigs are made right there in Saratoga Springs, where Peppermint Pigs always have been created. Mike hopes they always will be.
The Peppermint Pig, Mike reminds me, is the oldest indigenous American Christmas tradition. Christmas trees, cookies, Santa Clause, and carols … so many of them our ancestors brought from the Old World to enrich our holiday celebrations. But the Peppermint Pig is uniquely American, as special as each blessing it commemorates.