The typical Victorian holiday feast would likely be considered incomplete without a peppermint pig made of hard candy. Meanwhile, in Germany and Austria, though the practice may have ebbed slightly from the early 20th century, it is still considered commonplace to greet the new year by snacking on a pig made of marzipan, called a Glücksschwein (lucky pig).
Given, sweets on the holidays aren’t anything new and neither are wishes of good luck for the upcoming year, but there is a reason why a pig – instead of any other animal – plays so prominently in the equation.
Originally, this concept of the pig playing prominently can be traced back to the ancient Germanic tribes that inhabited central Europe and southern Scandinavia, where the wild boar was treated as a sacred animal, projecting strength and fertility. Though these ancient beliefs had largely been eradicated by the Medieval period, the pig, until very recently, still maintained a position of prominence, yet for different reasons: not only did the pig itself yield a quantity of meat, but, due to its prodigious breeding and ability to feed from pasture, crop residue, or even farm waste, it was also a very economical animal.
In the past, it was widely understood that, the more pigs you owned, the wealthier, or more lucky, you were. Looking at the German language, we can see that this cultural belief has influenced the terminology that people commonly use. For example, the highest value card in a deck is called die Sau (the sow/female pig) and, when Germans speak of ‘being lucky,’ they use the phrase Schwein haben, which literally means ‘to have pig.’
And though the lucky pig concept got popularised in the English language in only the 20th century, found in John Steinbeck’s The grapes of wrath: “We was pig lucky,” when you bite into that candy pig, whether it is hard peppermint or soft marzipan, do not forget that you are biting into a millennia-old representation of luck and prosperity.