Life
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The Peppermint Pig

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. via lagarfias.com

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.

Merry Christmas!

16 Comments

  1. Interesting! I’ve never heard of a peppermint pig. Where on earth do you find those! LOL. I can’t think of anything unusual that our family does at the moment.

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  2. As I was reading this, it made me think of Christ. Odd, I know. It just made me think of how he was beaten and broken so we could have new life in Him, and many things to be thankful for.

    I think I have actually heard of this before. Ours was to sing Happy Birthday to Jesus before we went downstairs to open presents.

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    • That is such a sobering analogy, Jenny. What a great reminder to look to the One who was bruised and beaten for us, for “with His stripes, we are healed.”

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  3. I’ve seen peppermint pigs before but never knew how they were used. Thanks for sharing this family tradition!
    But….how did this whole peppermint pig thing start in the first place? Any ideas? 😉

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  4. Sarah says

    Ok, I’m going to totally ruin the “fuzzy” moment; but I’m reading your note just after some more shopping, returning just bought-but-not-right items, and crazy driving…I was thinking the peppermint pig smashing would be good therapy after that experience!!!

    I often feel that I “fail” in the “special Christmas tradition” area. But, one we have in our family is very silly. And, it’s really for New Year’s. We make homemade ice cream sometime during that endless first week of football.

    This note has pr

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    • Doesn’t it? I can imagine a beautiful Christmas film, too. The scene in which he walks to his store in the rain and finds a line of seniors several blocks long, awaiting their beloved Peppermint Pigs would be a tear-jerker.

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  5. Richard says

    It’s not a tradition I ever heard of growing up, but I’ve seen the Peppermint Pig for sale in the Vermont County Store catalog, along with a brief history of Peppermint Pigs.

    I appreciate this fuller background – and now I know someone who actually does this tradition.

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