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The Origin of Candy Canes

Linda Sarhan has been a freelance writer and researcher for 20+ years and has a B.A. in English and creative writing.

The candy cane has become an iconic Christmas symbol over the decades. In fact, it is one of the top-selling candies during the Christmas holiday season. The candy cane has been a delight for both children and adults for over 350 years. But have you ever wondered how the candy cane we know and love today came about? Have you ever been curious as to how the candy cane grew in popularity over the centuries to become one of the most iconic symbols of Christmas?

Originally the candy cane was simply a white, straight stick made from pure sugar. It was simply a sweet treat that didn't necessarily have anything to do with Christmas. It wasn't until the 1600s that the candy cane was first associated with Christmas candy.

As Christians in Europe began adopting the use of Christmas trees as apart of their celebration during Christmas time, they decorated the trees with a variety of foods, including these straight white candy canes. It was the choirmaster at the Cologne Cathedral in Germany that began to evolve the candy cane closer to the candy cane we now today.

In 1670, the choirmaster began handing out these candy canes to the children to keep them quiet and well-behaved during the longer nativity scenes. However, he bent the candy cane to resemble the shepherds' staffs in the story of Jesus' birth as a way to remind them of the story.

This practice spread like wildfire throughout Europe as clergymen handed out these sweet treats to children at Christmas time so they would always remember the birth of Jesus. The candy cane tradition didn't take off in America until 1847 when a German-Swedish immigrant named August Imgard moved to Wooster, Ohio. He began decorating his Christmas tree with these staff-shaped candy canes. Soon after other people were inspired to do the same.

Around 1900 red stripes were added to the candy canes. Also around the same time, people began adding peppermint and wintergreen flavoring to the candy canes. No one knows the exact date on when the stripes or the flavoring was added, but if you look back at Christmas cards prior to 1900 they feature candy canes without stripes.

Although many people are led to believe that it was a candy maker in Indiana that incorporated the red stripes in an effort to show Christian symbolism, there is simply no evidence to back this up. Could it be true? Possibly so, but it seems no one knows his name nor where in Indiana.

The story has it that this alleged candy maker from Indiana added the stripes to symbolize the story of Jesus Christ. The shape is believed to symbolize the shepherd's staff or if you turn it upside down it is in the shape of a "J" to represent Jesus. The white part of the candy cane represents the purity of Jesus and the fact that he was born through a virgin. The red stripes represent the Christian belief that Jesus shed his blood to atone for the sins of people. Being a hard candy, the hardness represents the Christian church as being a rock-solid foundation for the worship of the Trinity.

Since peppermint is of the mint family and closely related to hyssop, it is said that it stands for purification and sacrifice. In the Old Testament, hyssop was used for purification and during sacrifice therefore it relates to the purity of Jesus and the sacrifice he made on the cross.

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There are other variations surrounding the red stripes. It is told that the bold red stripe represents God's love for humanity. The three lesser stripes stand for the Trinity, which Christians believe to be the Father (God), the Son (Jesus), and the Holy Spirit.

Many other people believe that the red stripes were actually placed on the candy canes by a candy maker in Albany, Georgia by the name of Bob McCormick. Bob McCormick started McCormick's Famous Candy Company in 1919. He credits his inspiration to a Swedish candy called a Polkagris, which has red stripes.

The candy cane production evolved again in the 1950s. Due to the demand for Bob McCormick's candy canes, Gregory Keller invented the machine to help aid in the mass production of candy canes. It just so happens that Gregory Keller is Bob McCormick's brother-in-law and a Catholic priest. Perhaps the connection between just a beloved treat and a spiritual symbol is not so far-fetched, but again it could be all coincidental.

McCormick's Famous Candy Company changed its name to Bob's Candies in 1924 and is considered the leading producer of candy canes in the world. Thanks in part to this Albany, Georgia is also considered the candy cane capital of the world with investors coming from Birmingham, Alabama.

Since the red stripes were added on white sugar sticks, you can now find candy canes in a variety of colors and flavors. Not all candy canes have that minty flavor.They can come in fruity flavors and even taste like your favorite hard candy. There are candy canes that are white with green stripes, pink with red stripes, yellow with rainbow stripes, light blue with dark blue stripes, and many more hit the market shelves each year.

Regardless of whether the candy cane has religious symbolism or not, it is still a sweet treat enjoyed by millions of people each Christmas season. If you chose to believe the religious hype or not, is up to you.

How to make homemade candy canes

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2014 Linda Sarhan


Rochelle Frank from California Gold Country on October 26, 2014:

Interesting and in-depth article on the subject. I enjoyed it and now want a candy cane.

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