Monday, March 12, 2012

As Irish as Paddy's Pig, Wagner Style

So what's the story behind the weird little green pig that the Wagner workshop produced?

Clearly, at a glance, anybody would know that the shamrock-toting swine is a St. Patrick's Day ornament, but it gave me a fun excuse to traipse around and look for more information about this popular symbol of luck and Eire (something that I love to do, being both an information packrat and half-Irish).

The pig has long served as a symbol of luck as well as Ireland. Its association with luck is certainly a dubious one for the pig, because the pig itself was unlucky in that it provided an excellent source of food and prosperity for its owner. But in a time when food, particularly protein-rich food, wasn't terribly easy to come by, being in possession of a fat pig meant your family was very fortunate indeed.

In Ireland, according to Irish chef Darina Allen, early pigs were "thin, scrawny and vicious in temperament," capable of leaping over a fence. They were raised mainly on beech and oak nuts, which the pigs obtained by feeding in woodlands.

But once the potato was introduced into Ireland (sometime in the 1600s) and evolved into a staple food of the poor (by the early 1700s), people could raise their pigs closer to home; Allen writes, "After the widespread adoption of the potato, virtually every hovel could afford to rear a pig in good years, because the animal could be fed on surplus potatoes, potato skins and sour milk."

Indeed, pigs ate nearly anything and everything, and fattened nicely on this random fare. When the pig finally had its rendezvous with the butcher's knife, every bit of it was put to use. Pigs "were prized possessions," says Allen, "not only providing several months' supply of meat for the household, but also leaving enough over to share with neighbors."

This image includes a lucky sweep.
So important was the pig to a family living a hardscrabble life that it earned the nickname of "the gentleman who pays the rent." Another luck-and-swine saying is "on the pig's back," the literal translation of the Gaelic phrase ar mhuin na muice, a colloquialism that means "well off" or, well, living "high on the hog."

The pig's ubiquity on Irish farms naturally evolved into an association with Irish nationality itself, just as a gentle cow is linked with imagery of Swiss mountainsides or a longhorn steer with the western United States.

Wagner's take on the popular piggy is a bright green little fellow who carries a shamrock in his mouth--a gold one, no less, thus adding the lucky symbolism of the clover with that of the gold coin.

My own little Paddy's pig was made after German unification (his tag says Wagner Handwork Germany, and the lack of a "West" before "Germany" shows that he's a post-1990 creation). 

He's got bright orange eyes and has something of the crazed look that you'll often find on the earliest Wagners, the ones that bear the green-and-white labels reading "M.C. Originals" that show a chimpanzee's face.

Incidentally, Germany itself is as familiar with the notion of the lucky pig as Ireland is (and like the Irish, the Germans--famous for cuisine that includes pork deli meats and sausages--made use of the pig from snout to tail).

The German phrase Schwein haben ("to have pig") means, like "on the pig's back," that a person has come into good fortune and is a Glucksschwein, or "lucky pig."

The pigs that cavort among shamrocks on vintage St. Patrick's Day cards from Ireland are matched by German usage of pigs as symbols of good luck on greeting cards, as ornaments, and the like.

This association is celebrated during the Christmas holidays when children receive marzipan pigs as a token for good luck in the year ahead.

I'd be curious to know if any of you have other variations on the Wagner Paddy's Pig!