Of Pickles and Peppermint Pigs

American Christmas and New Year celebrations are filled to bursting with traditions that have originated in other countries and olden times – decorated evergreen trees, nativity scenes, stockings stuffed with small gifts and yule logs burning bright.

But interestingly, two weird holiday traditions in America – albeit derived from European forbears – seem to be unique to America. These traditions are evolutions of previous traditions in their new environment: Christmas Pickles and Peppermint Pigs.

Does Your Family Do the Christmas Pickle?

Back in late 1800’s the American Christmas consumer craze was just starting to hit its stride. German workshops in particular were producing beautiful holiday decorations of all kinds and exporting them to the United States. Blown glass ornaments, including fruits and vegetables, were imported by A.F.W. Woolworth. In many families, these beautiful and fragile items became something akin to heirlooms, passed down along with Christmas traditions, recipes and songs. Some of these imported blown glass ornaments were in the form of the lowly pickle.

And thus a mystery arose. The sparkling glass ornaments were unpacked each year and hung on the lighted tree by the whole family together on Christmas Eve. Nary a pickle in sight. And yet on Christmas morning, there it was in all its warty gherkin glory, glimmering, nearly hidden among the green branches. The one who spotted the lucky pickle received prosperity and good fortune for the upcoming year, or a special present or a bag of chocolate “gold” coins. How did that pickle get there? Was it Santa? And why pickles?

It doesn’t matter whether it’s true that St. Nicholas freed two Spanish children trapped by an innkeeper in a barrel of pickles. It doesn’t matter whether it’s actually a marketing scheme cooked up by Woolworth’s back in the day. It’s pickles! Pickles are fun and funny. The word is even fun to say. Presents and treats are also yummy and any reason one can find to give or receive them at holiday time should be indulged.

Hot Pink Peppermint Pigs? A Smashing Good Time!

In Victorian times, peppermint pigs were a popular holiday tradition, particularly in New England. The story goes that at the end of the long Christmas or New Year’s holiday meal, a miniature pig cast of hard peppermint candy would be brought forth on a salver. The shiny pink piggy was placed in its lovely velvet pouch and then whacked firmly with a small silver hammer to shatter it. The bag served to contain any mess— the Victorians were nothing if not tidy.

The salver with the pouched pig was then passed around the table. As it moved from hand to hand, each member of the family and any guests would share a memory or tell a little tale of their fortunes — good or ill — in the previous year, then reach into the bag and take and eat a piece of the broken candy. If deemed necessary, the pig might be hammered multiple times by the participants, a practice particularly enjoyed by the young people present.

The sharp shards of the holiday peppermint pig were specifically believed to bring luck, health and prosperity to those who sucked theirs until it was gone. Presumably, the larger the piece, the greater the luck and blessings of Fortuna in the upcoming year. Luckily, peppermint is good for the digestion!

It’s thought that the “lucky pig” tradition was brought to America by German and Dutch immigrants. Pigs have long been symbols of prosperity for Germanic peoples and in fact in Germany still today little lucky piggies made of marzipan (almond paste) are given as Jul gifts around the New Year. As is often the case, the Germans even have an initial-cap word for it: Glückschwein.

About 25 years ago the Saratoga Sweets Candy Company in New York revived the American peppermint tradition for a local historical society, using copies of antique molds. The first run was a smash hit and the firm subsequently began annual production and trademarked the Peppermint Pig™.

The most opulent oinker the company offers is “Clarence” —  at six inches long he’s quite corpulent, weighing in at about a pound. Some pig, indeed! But no hammer or bag comes with this big boy. He’s a “refill” – for those who’ve already felt the power of the pig and possess their own velvet pouch and silver hammer.

If you need the whole shebang or want to send a full kit to a friend so they can share in the weird holiday traditions, you’ll want to take a look at the medium-sized Noel combo-pack, which includes a half-pound peppermint pig, a hammer, a red pouch and a nice card.

Either of these adorable pink porkers are less than $25. They’re great conversation starters and are a fun way to include members of the group who tend to be quiet. Plus, kids think they’re a smashing good time!

Also, don’t judge, but shhhh marzipan is gross. I’ll take my lucky pigs American style. Peppermint, please, and pass the pickles! On the off-chance you don’t spot the lucky pickle or receive good luck from a peppermint pig — consider life insurance.

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