Of all of the Christmas traditions, consuming and decorating with Candy canes at Christmas is arguably the sweetest of them all. Candy canes are probably the first thing that most people think of when asked to name a Christmas candy or when thinking about a candy that is most associated with the holidays. Their image alone has become a symbol that conjures up thoughts of Christmas. While the candy cane now seemingly comes in all sizes, colors and flavors imaginable (as can be seen on the right and left side of this page), traditionally they are most identified as being red and white striped and tasting like peppermint. But why does the candy cane have that flavor, color scheme and shape? Many don't realize that candy canes were originally just plain white and that they were, in their earliest form, straight. So how did candy canes become such a staple of our confectionary enjoyment of the Christmas holiday season, when and why were candy canes given their unique characteristics that have made them a symbol of Christmas, what do they represent, if anything, and how are they made?
Origins of the Candy Cane
Candy canes were originally just white candy sticks
The curve was added around 1670 by a choirmaster in Cologne, Germany
Candy canes became associated with Christmas in two ways
Europeans used them in their decoration of Christmas trees
Church leaders in Europe handed them out to children during nativity services
Europeans brought these traditions with them to America
In 1847 in Wooster, Ohio, a German immigrant, August Imgard, decorated a Christmas tree with candy canes making it the first record of the candy cane's association with Christmas in America
The red stripes were added sometime around 1900
This is known because Christmas cards before around the turn of the century show all white candy canes and cards after that time show red stripes
The peppermint flavoring was also added around this time
Candy canes were very fragile and time consuming to produce so they were not widely available and primarily made locally by individuals or candy companies
One such individual, Bob McCormack, the founder of Bobs Candies in Albany, Georgia, began making candy canes for the local population in the 1920s
The company used cellophane to prevent moisture from damaging the canes allowing them to last longer
Bob's brother-in-law, Gregory Keller, invented a machine in 1953 to mass produce candy canes which drastically increased their availability
Candy Cane Meanings
No one knows for sure if the shape, color or flavor had any specifically intended religious meaning
The most clear religious connection is the shape which was bent like a shepherd's crook at the instruction of a choirmaster to be handed out to children during nativity services
This shepherds crook could represent Jesus, who is known as the Good Shepherd
Some also claim the shape represents the letter "J" for Jesus
The red stripes have been said to have been added to represent the blood of Jesus and his sacrifice for our sins. However, this cannot be confirmed nor denied as no one really knows who added them or what he or she intended them to mean
This is also true of the three smaller red stripes on some candy canes which are said to have a number of meanings from the holy trinity, to the small, insignificant sacrifices we make in comparison to the ultimate sacrifice Jesus made for us, to the wounds that Jesus suffered during his life. Just as with the larger stripes, these potential meanings cannot be confirmed nor definitively denied
Some have said the white in the candy cane represents the purity of Jesus. This is almost certainly not true as the white was the initial color when the candy had no association with Christmas or Jesus. However, if the person who added the red stripes to the candy had intended them as a representation for the blood of Christ, he or she could have intended for the juxtaposition of the colors to represent purity and sacrifice.
The peppermint flavoring added around the same time as the red stripes is said to have been added because it is similar to the the minty, biblical herb hyssop, which represents purification and sacrifice. This also cannot not confirmed nor denied as no one really knows who added the flavoring.
The solid nature of the candy is said to represent the rock the church of Christ was built upon. This is almost certainly a myth as the candy had its texture far before it had become associated with Christmas. But, as with the white color, when potential religious meanings were added, this too could have been post-rationalized as a religious reasoning for the texture.
Given the time period, around 1900, when many of the elements of the candy cane were added, it would be foolish to dismiss these elements as having had no religious meaning or connection whatsoever. Granted, as each year goes by, Christmas becomes more secularized and now fewer people associate Christmas with the birth of Jesus Christ, but back then they did. Most people didn't celebrate Christmas if they were not Christians and didn't believe in Jesus as their Lord and Savior; Jesus and Christmas were inseparable. And by the time the red stripes and peppermint flavor were added, candy canes had become associated with Christmas, so much so that they appeared on Christmas cards and were handed out at Christmas church services. Granted the person who added the color and flavor could have done so because he or she liked the way it looked and tasted, but chances are they were added for a reason, whatever that may be...