This Little Piggy is a Christmas Legend

Peppermint Pigs, a long-standing tradition, bring good luck and health

Story by Jessica Bellack
Pictures courtesy of Saratoga Sweets

Mike Fitzgerald is a Santa Claus of sorts, but in Saratoga, he's known as the �Pig Man.� Oddly enough, he's okay with that.

From Columbus Day to the end of the year, Fitzgerald of Saratoga Sweets in Clifton Park, New York, slaves over a hot stove cooking up a Christmas tradition. He cooks up a liquid hot, pink substance and pours it into a small pig-shaped mold to harden, bringing the hopes of good luck and health to many families this Christmas season.

Noel the peppermint pig
The classic pig, Noel, comes with hammer and a pig legend, in a velveteen pouch.
Traditionally, after Christmas dinner the head of the household places the pig in a velveteen pouch and smashes it with a metal mallet. It is then passed around the table, so everyone gets a turn. Typically, each person recalls something good that happened over the last year. �It turns into a really positive family tradition. It provides closure to the year,� says Fitzgerald. �I think these guys back 120-years-ago had a pretty good idea.�

 

�It turns into a really positive family tradition. It provides closure to the year. I think these guys back 120-years-ago had a pretty good idea.�

The pig is made of hard peppermint, which tastes almost like a candy cane. It has a smooth texture and is made with no additives or extracts. Since the candy has to break, it needs to have a high sugar content. If it had a high corn syrup content, like a Jolly Rancher does, it would be too hard to crack.

Fitzgerald says that this is the oldest indigenous holiday tradition in America. Like most Christmas traditions, the peppermint pig's roots don't derive from Europe.

Fitzgerald assumes the pig's significance was based on the 1800s symbol of prosperity. Back then, if you owned property with animals, each one served a purpose. Whether they pulled plows or carts, gave milk, or laid eggs, they were all workers- except for the pig. So if you owned a pig, then it meant you were wealthy.

The making of the peppermint pigs
Peppermint pigs are made directly in Saratoga Sweets from a peppermint liquid.
By the turn of the century, almost every candy shop in Saratoga made peppermint pigs, but this tradition dwindled and was lost early in century.

By 1988, the Saratoga Historical Society turned to Fitzgerald because he was one of the few candy shop owners who actually made the candy right there in the shop. Fitzgerald then made his way down to the Saratoga Historical Society's museum, where he talked to the curator and examined a plastic figurine of the historical swine. He also spoke with the retired town historian and went to a place where he knew he could find information- the local nursing home. �It was certainly a confectionery puzzle, but I feel very fortunate to resurrect such a tradition,� he explains.

The confectioners at Saratoga Sweets make the pigs basically the same as back in the day, except for the use of an electric stove. It's even made in small batches, rather than mass produced. Fitzgerald strove to get the pigs exactly how they traditionally were.

Peppermint pig molds
The pig molds are almost exact replicas of the ones made 120 years ago.
In 1990, after hearing from some local old timers that the smallest pig wasn't exactly identical to what they remembered, he placed an ad in the paper to anyone who had a mold. In 1952 an ice cream factory burnt down were the metal molds were stored and was reported that everything was lost. Fitzgerald thought since the molds were metal they could have survived the fire, and he was right. A couple of weeks later, an elderly woman came to his shop and presented him with molds from the �20s and �30s. After a quick stop at a mold maker in Buffalo, New York, he returned the molds to the women and threw in a box of candy. �Everyone ended up happy,� contends Fitzgerald. To this day, he still doesn't know who the anonymous woman was.

By that holiday season, Saratoga Sweets had made around 70 to 80 peppermint pigs, not nearly enough to fill demands. When local old timers got wind that the pigs were back in the area, they caused a road block on the street.

The next holiday season Fitzgerald decided to ration two pigs per customer. But when an elderly lady came in seeking three, Fitzgerald couldn't say no. Weeks later, her daughter came into the shop exclaiming that her mother refused to celebrate Christmas after the death of her beloved husband 28 years before. She told Fitzgerald that her mother and father were born and raised in Saratoga and dearly loved Christmas and all the traditions that came with it. When she found out that peppermint pigs were being made again, she bought three for each of her grandchildren, dragged her tree out of the closet, and invited her family over to her decorated house. �Stories like this make putting in those long hours all worth it,� he says.

�I get to do something pretty special and I wouldn't want it any other way.�

Long hours indeed. From Columbus Day to the end of the year, Fitzgerald and staff often put in 12 to 14-hour-days, over hot stoves and concentrated mint fumes. While he misses his family, he's humbled by it. �I get to do something pretty special and I wouldn't want it any other way.�

Cracking board
This pig-shaped cracking board is just another item Saratoga Sweets offers.
The fame of the peppermint pig has also brought some fame to Fitzgerald. Every Thanksgiving, he proudly marches down Broadway during the Macy's Day parade—but don't try pointing him out, because he's clad head to toe in a pig suit. Fitzgerald and his pigs have been covered by the Food Network, National Geographic, CBS Evening News, and CNN almost every year. The peppermint pig has recently been added to the New York State Encyclopedia and is even up for inclusion by Webster's Dictionary. �My son won't be satisfied until the peppermint pig is turned into an X-box game.�

Now Saratoga Sweets make around 120,000 to 130,000 pigs a year. Whitney Jahn, a Saratoga resident, says her family passes one around every Christmas Eve at dinner. Her bother had a Saratoga-theme wedding, which featured a peppermint pig at every table. �He wanted to share this tradition with our friends and family,� Jahn says.

�It's funny how a little candy pig can mean so much to so many people,� says Fitzgerald.

 

Are peppermint pigs part of your family's tradition? Let us know!

 

Pigs for Sale!
Peppermint pigs come in three sizes.

Holly: This perfect stocking stuffer is 3 ½ inches long and includes at ornament loop for your tree.
Noel: This classic pig measures 5 ½ inches long. The combination pack includes this pig, a nickel plated hammer, and the legend of the pig, all in a velveteen pouch.
Clarence: He’s a big boy, weighing in at a full pound.


Pig Paraphernalia
Peppermints are such a hit you can find pig apparel, pink plush pigs, and even pig poop, for sale at Saratoga Sweets.

Apparel
Hats
Socks
Necklaces

Accessories
Pig shaped cracking board
Coasters
Plush Pigs

Candy
Poop: Peppermint pieces, essentially a broken pig
Puddle: Peppermint combined with white chocolate

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