Like many symbols of Christmas, there are several legends about the origin of candy canes. But whether as treats or ornaments, candy canes mean Christmas.
Like many items connected with Christmas, the candy cane is steeped in religious symbolism and history. However, the most plausible story is more about bribery than the Holy Trinity.
From its origins in Germany, the candy cane spread across Europe and then to North America where it first became mass-produced in bulk. Whether as a treat or a tree ornament, the candy cane is firmly established as a Christmas treasure. It even has its own national holiday.
Religious Symbolism of Candy Canes: Truth or Fiction
One theory about the origin of candy canes, according to DeeAnn Mandry, author of Canadian Christmas Traditions is that the candy cane’s unique shape stands for the letter “J” as in Jesus. The red and white stripes present purity and the blood of Christ, the Virgin birth, or the Holy Trinity.
According to this version of the candy cane legend, an anonymous candy maker from Indiana created the striped candy cane in the 1870s. Unfortunately, the dates don’t stand up to close scrutiny. Plain white candy canes were around 200 years before the Indiana story is set; while striped canes didn’t appear until the early 1900s.
Another legend was that candy canes were used as a form of secret identification among European Christians who feared persecution. Again, the dates don’t match. By the time the candy cane made its appearance around 1670, Christianity was already the dominant religion in Europe.
A third possibility is that the candy cane was actually a form of bribery for good behavior. According to this legend, a choirmaster of the Cologne Cathedral in Germany simply took the already existing Christmas candy – straight white sticks of sugar candy – and bent them to form a shepherd’s crook. He then handed them out to children during Christmas church services to keep them on their best behavior.
While this version may lack some of the religious symbolism of the other versions, anyone with children knows a sugary bribe can do wonders. And in this case, the dates match.
Candy Canes Spread Through Europe as Treats and Tree Ornaments
Along with probably giving the world its first candy canes, Germany is also credited with introducing the idea of trimming the Christmas tree. In those pre-electricity times, candies and cookies made up the main form of tree ornaments.
Over time, the candy canes became increasingly fancier and more festive. First adorned with roses, they later got their distinctive peppermint taste and red stripes in the mid-1800s. This time, though, it was the Swedes who brought the candy canes to a new level.
From Individually Made to Bulk Candy Cane Production
European settlers brought the knowledge of candy canes to North America. However, making them was a labor-intensive process. The sugar concoction had to be pulled, twisted, cut, and then bent by hand.
It was an American Catholic priest, Gregory Keller, who changed the process, putting candy canes on the road to commercial success. Keller invented the machine that took much of the manual labor out of the process. Further inventions refined and automated the process, plus included the packaging machine that made it possible to turn the candy cane business from a local process into a national one.
Modern Candy Cane Trivia and Fun Facts
Today, according to The National Confectioners Association, although a variety of colors and flavors have replaced the original white candy sticks, “peppermint with red-with-white-stripes remains the favorite of modern traditionalists.”
How many candy canes are produced annually in the United States? Think of a line of candy canes stretching from Santa Clause IN, to the North Pole, AK, and back again – 32 times. That comes to 1.76 billion candy canes annually.
And when you’ve finished celebrating Christmas, make sure you have at least one more candy cane left so you can celebrate National Candy Cane Day on December 26th.
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