Let’s talk candy canes.
When I first decided to do them I thought I would have to settle down and get ready for a looooong research sessions. Interestingly enough, I didn’t. There’s very little candy cane history out there. I looked in books and all over the Internet and read the same thing over and over again. Finally, I admitted to myself that there was nothing else to find out, and that I would have to be happy with what I had. Hopefully, you will be too.
I give you “The Very Short Story of Candy Canes and Christmas.”
Sugar used to be expensive and was a food for the wealthy. Other people had to reserve it for special occasions, like Christmas. What little sugar they could afford was savored and admired. There were also hard candies.
Hard candies were originally made for medicinal purposes (i.e. cough drops) that only the wealthy could afford. However, candy makers realized how popular these tasty remedies were and soon produced all kinds of hard candies for “recreational” purposes. Once the Middle Ages rolled around, sugar became more widely available, as did the hard candies.
Candy canes have been around since the 17th century, but not in the form we know them now. They used to be white, straight sticks that mothers gave to their babies as pacifiers. The story of how they got their crook goes something like this:
In 1670, there was a choirmaster at the cathedral in Cologne who helped put on the live nativity scene every year. It was a lengthy show and children in the pews often got restless. Tired of the disturbance, the choirmaster had sugar canes made in the shape of a Shepard’s’ Crook to pass out to all the children who attended the ceremony. His plan? The kids would be so involved in their crooks they wouldn’t make noise. Sure enough, the children were so busy with their new candy canes that they didn’t have the time to be disruptive.
The practice of handing out candy canes at living crèches became popular and eventually spread throughout Europe. The Germans, who used sweets to decorate Christmas trees, began using them as ornaments. Later on, candy canes were embellished with white sugar roses.
The first record of candy canes in America is from 1847. August Imgard, a German-Swedish immigrant living in Wooster, Ohio, decorated his Christmas tree with them. His nieces were so intrigued by the practice that they began to do the same. Again, the practice picked up popularity and spread around America.
At the beginning of the 20th century, candy canes began to be striped red and white, as well as flavored with peppermint and wintergreen. It is unknown who began this practice, but evidence of the change is apparent in Christmas cards produced after 1900. All Christmas cards from before 1900 still feature the pure white sticks or crooks.
Still, candy canes remained a local treat because they were not easily shipped. Confectioners had to pull, twist, cut, and bend the sticks by hand, making them quite fragile. Their frail construction and vulnerability to moisture would not allow them to withstand long distance packaging and shipping.
A man named Bob McCormack, who had been making candy canes since the 1920’s in Albany, Georgia, dreamed of distributing them on a national scale. In the 1950’s, his brother-in-law, a Catholic priest, invented a machine that automated candy cane production. At the same time, Bob and his oldest son, Bob Jr., created a packing device that wrapped and sealed the candy in moisture proof plastic wrappers. He was finally able to ship his candy canes far and wide and Bobs Candies became the world’s largest candy cane producer. Now, nearly 2 billion candy canes are produced each year.
There happens to be another origin story for the candy cane. This one tells the tale of a candy maker in Indiana who wanted to make a candy that would incorporate symbols for the birth, ministry, and death of Jesus Christ. As his base, he chose a pure-white hard candy. The white symbolized the virgin birth and sinless nature of Jesus. The candy was hard to represent Christ as the Solid Rock, the foundation of the Church, and the firmness of the promises of God. It was in the shape of a “J” for Jesus’ name, or the shape of the staff of the Good Shepard.
He thought the candy should be a little more interesting, so he stained it with three thin red stripes representing the flogging Jesus received before his crucifixion, and one large red stripe for the blood he shed on the cross. The peppermint flavor is similar to hyssop, a plant the ancient Hebrews used in purification rites.
This is a nice story, except for one problem. It’s completely implausible. Candy canes had been around long before Indiana was even a gleam in America’s eye. Any religious symbolism is projection from the modern period.
Now, you can get candy canes in all different colors and flavors. They’re used to decorate Christmas trees and stuff stockings. They can also be used to stir hot chocolate or as a topping for ice cream, brownies, and cupcakes. I made brownies the other weekend using crushed candy cane as a topping. They were magnificent.
Keep eating and asking, my friends.
-Bordon, David, and Tom Winters. Everything Christmas. Colorado Springs, CO: Waterbook, 2010. 60. Print.
-Crump, William D. The Christmas Encyclopedia. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2001. 41-42. Print.
-Bowler, G. Q. The World Encyclopedia of Christmas. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2000. 36. Print.-Olver, Lynne. “Candy Canes.” Food Timeline: Food History & Vintage Recipes. Foodtimeline.org, Nov. 2011. Web. 06 Dec. 2011. <http://www.foodtimeline.org/christmasfood.html>.
-“Candy Canes and Silver Lanes: The Invention of a Holiday Favorite.” InventHelp, “The Invent Help People”: Have an Invention Idea? InventHelp.com, Dec. 2005. Web. 06 Dec. 2011. <http://www.inventhelp.com/Candy_Cane_Invention.asp>.