Originally written on January 1, 2021. Updated 2023
Around the world, lucky foods for the new year range from collard greens (representing green cash) to long noodles (representing a lengthy lifespan), or lentils (representing money and luck).
However, for many cultures, pork is the favorite for welcoming the New Year. From Cuban roast pig to Okinawan sparerib or pig’s feet soup, the pork starts the year as star and, in several cases, pigs serve as annual good luck charms.
For istance, in Lancaster County, a node of the Pennsylvania Dutch, locals spend New Year’s Day feasting on roast pork and sauerkraut. Despite ham and turkeys are common holiday dish, the pork serves actually a symbolic purpose, according to local tradition: turkeys scratch dirt backwards while foraging, while pigs do the opposite, rooting forwards towards the future.
However, the tradition’s origins are likely more pragmatic.
In Germany pigs were slaughtered in the winter, and this provided fresh meat, some of which could be saved for celebratory holiday meals.
And, interestingly, this isn’t the sole German association between pigs and good luck.
If you’ve ever been to Germany around Christmastime, you’ve probably seen at least a marzipan pig.
Historically in Germanic world-view the pigs or boars, unlike certain other cultures, had a very positive connotation. This animal was associated with livestock, farming, wealth and thus prosperity. To many traditional Germanic peoples who lived an agricultural lifestyle the pig was also an emblem of livelihood and abundance.
Now, I am sure any of who are of a German or Scandinavian background are already quite familiar with the “Glücksschwein” custom.
Giving away little porkies made of sugar and almond paste is a New Year’s tradition meant for good fortune. And while it may sound a little odd, local history and culture explains everything.
In German language, “Schwein gehabt” or “having a pig” means being lucky. It’s an expression that comes from medieval times, since a farmer wealthy enough to bred a lot of pigs was surely a lucky man.
Marzipan, on the other hand, is a sweet delicacy that became popular in Germany around the same time, especially in the northern city of Lübeck. Once an important medieval trading town, Lübeck’s become regarded over the years as one of the best places in the world to get this smooth, sugary marzipan pigs, that are a very beloved treat and a popular gift to celebrate New Year. The delicious pig are sculpted from almond paste and colored bright pink.
Traditionally, each pig is taken individually by staff and rubbed with almond oil (what some factory workers call the pigs’ “back massage”), then perked up around the ears and tail with a plastic tool. They are spray-painted pink, then carefully given blue eyes by hand with a brush. Afterward, down they go through conveyor belts, one by one for packaging.
From there, they end up on tables and in gift bags around Germany. After that, they end up in stomachs, or as souvenirs and good luck charms for many years to come.
Sweet piggy marzipan is also a custom in Austria, Norway and Denmark.
But recently, some people began celebrating the pig in a less meaty way. On Twitter, in fact, people are displaying lemons carved and decorated to resemble pigs, inspired by a craft project unearthed from a 70’s cookbook. With pennies in their mouths and a curly tinfoil tails, the pigs are intended to bring luck (and presumably wealth) still today.
It was New Year’s Eve, 2017 when Anna Pallay, author of “70s Dinner Party: The Good, the Bad and the Downright Ugly of Retro Food”, posted the picture on Twitter. A snapshot from the 1971 book showed a goofy-looking pig statuette with an extremely confident caption: “For luck in the New Year, a Lemon Piglet is a must!”
Her followers agreed, and soon she was deluged with dozens of lemon pig photos.
Four toothpicks make up the pig’s legs, while small slices in the lemon peel create its mouth and ears, and two cloves are the eyes. The curly tail is fashioned from crushed up foil, and a glistening penny is inserted into the piggy’s mouth, presumably symbolizing the hoped-for luck. Even the lemonless joined in on the fun: mandarin pigs and lime pigs joined the herd of citrus swine while an onion, apparently, makes a reasonable piglike shape, while a banana really does not. (“Sorry for the horror,” its creator wrote.)
But there is no actual tradition of making lemon pigs in the new year.
Instead, the lemon pig has a stranger backstory, as they have been around for more than a century. An 1882 magazine story described a nearly identical lemon pig, and newspapers in the 1890s instructed readers how to make them.
Perhaps it’s to be expected, after the bruising experience of living through 2020, that it feels like we have to make our own luck. And if pigs don’t work, there are really many other good luck charms around the world. Watch out, 2021….
Images from web – Google Research