A Walk Down Candy Cane Memory Lane

Let’s face it. You can’t get through the Christmas season without at least a mention of candy canes. Right around mid-November, stores all over the country stock their shelves with delightful cane-shaped goodies. And it doesn’t stop in the candy aisle. There are candy cane ornaments, candy cane clothes, candy cane garlands, candy cane window lights, and candy cane walkway lights. Especially in my old stomping grounds of So-Cal, people decorated the trunks of Palm Trees in a red and white peppermint twist of lights. Then there are the candy cane cookies, the candy cane Hershey kisses, the candy cane truffles, and even the candy cane cocktails (yummy, bottoms up).

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And of course…. Candy Cane Peeps…

 

Although the red and white peppermint canes are the undisputed king of Christmas candies, both in looks and taste, other companies have jumped in on the action. You can find candy canes flavored and colored like Sweet Tarts, Skittles, Sour Patch Kids, Jelly Belly, and Oreo cookies. There are rainbow-colored canes, Christmas-colored canes, and pastel-colored canes. Some truly bizarre flavors are creeping into the candy cane scene too. Flavors like bacon, Macaroni and Cheese, and even Kale. Yes… kale. I don’t know what would ruin my Christmas more than a kale cane, but here we are.

So, where did all the madness start? How did cane-shaped candies with a burst of peppermint come to take over the Christmas season? As I worked my way through this year’s first delicious candy cane, I decided to do a little digging. And I have to say, the research left me feeling a bit disappointed. Because the answer to where the candy cane came from is this – no one… really… knows.

What a forehead slap of a response, huh? I suppose I could just stop the article here and let you move on with your day (and your Christmas shopping). But that wouldn’t be very sporty now would it? Besides, there are some fun legends that have sprung up around the advent of the candy cane, and they are worth taking a look at.

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Especially the charming story of a German choir master’s antics to keep rowdy kids quiet during church service. One of the most famous (and largely accepted) versions of the candy cane’s murky origins, this story goes all the way back to 1670. At Cologne’s grand cathedral (I’ve been there – it’s delightful), this choir master didn’t want a bunch of pesky little children ruining his beautiful Christmas Eve service, which he had probably spent months preparing (I should know, I used to be in a church choir). So he visited the local candy maker and asked him for a plethora of “candy sticks.” Although a popular treat at the time, these weren’t like the candy canes of today. They were plain white, completely straight, and had no special flavors or fanfare.

Which actually presented a bit of a problem for our choir master. Church services were um… a bit more formal during this time – expected to follow a strict decorum that absolutely did not involve candy sticks. How could he justify handing out candy to children on one of the most sacred, holy nights of the liturgical year? Well, our determined choir master came up with a solution for the sake of his choir, and to the delight of countless future generations. He asked the candy maker to bend the sticks at the top, so he could pass them off as a shepherd’s hook and tie them to the birth of Christ.

Voila. With that stroke of genius, the candy sticks became perfectly acceptable as part of the Christmas liturgy, and they indeed proved a wonderful antidote for restless, angsty children. Until they got high off the sugar, but by then they would be some weary parent’s problem.

Although there isn’t exactly concrete evidence to back up this candy cane tale, it does hold a tiny bit of weight with the historical paperwork. “Candy sticks,” the candy cane in its most primitive form, have indeed been traced back hundreds of years. They were especially prevalent in Germany, and since so many of our current holiday traditions originated there, it’s not a big stretch to think the candy cane might have too. And further evidence comes from my own field work in this area. Each time I hand one of my wild nieces or nephews a candy cane, it does seem to keep them quiet for a precious few minutes.

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But this isn’t the only legend around the birth of the candy cane, especially the red and white striped one we’ve all come to know and love. Another famous story about this originates right here in my new home state of Indiana. It involves a very spiritual candy maker who wanted to teach children about Jesus. And if you want to snag a child’s attention, what better way than candy? So he took some peppermint sticks out of his inventory and curved them into a “J” for Jesus. The hard candy, he said, symbolized the rock solid foundation of the church. The white symbolized the purity of Christ and his virgin birth. And just to seal the deal, he threw in a few red stripes to symbolize the blood payment Jesus would eventually make. He then handed his religious goodies out to the local children, who were suddenly all ears to learn about our Lord and take sugary treats from a stranger.

The story has taken a firm root in some corners of the world, but I’m afraid it has virtually no historical evidence to back it up. Especially since there’s no name to investigate for either the candy maker, or the sweet shop where this was alleged to have taken place. And as fun as it would be to live in the home state of the almighty candy cane, it’s hard for us to take full credit for that. Because we know candy canes in some form existed long before any candy maker set foot in the Hoosier State.

But all is not lost for us American Patriots. Because a third candy cane origin story also takes place here, this time in Ohio. A short and sweet story (not unlike candy canes themselves), this legend involves a German immigrant named August Imgard. Christmas tree fanatics like myself might recognize the name, since he gets a great deal of credit for popularizing the German Christmas Tree tradition here in the United States. Apparently in 1847, he chopped down a blue spruce tree and dressed it up with colorful ornaments and decorations. Some versions of this story have him using candy canes as a tree garnish – marking the first time candy canes were used to decorate a tree.

Another charming tale but unfortunately, this one is swirled in controversy as well. Some candy historians point out that red and white striped candy canes did not emerge until the turn of the century, so Imgard couldn’t have used them to dress his tree. And other accounts of this famous display of Christmas spirit have Imgard using cookies to decorate the tree, not canes. I guess there’s no way to really know for sure on this account, but we can at least pat Imgard on the back for being such an early proponent of Christmas trees. So much that to this day, his grave in Wooster, Ohio is annually decorated with a lighted tree at Christmas time.

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Nom nom nom!

So, a lot of charming stories, but which one should we believe? As I mentioned before, there isn’t a ton of paperwork to back up any of these stories. Because candy canes, as popular as they are now, didn’t leave many traces on the historical trail. In the United States, the earliest known mention of a candy cane didn’t come until 1837, where a Massachusetts confectionary competition mentioned “stick candy” as one of its winning treats. In 1844 came the first mention of a smack of peppermint in these candy sticks, when a recipe for “peppermint candy sticks” appeared in a popular periodical. By the end of the Civil War, some literature here and there made scant mentions of “candy canes,” but there is no mention of their flavor or color. And their first association with Christmas came in 1874, when “The Nursery,” a monthly publication, included them in their Christmas issue.

Other than that, we don’t have much to go on. Although we at least know how candy makers came to crank out hundreds of thousands of them every year. As with any candy in history, candy canes used to be made by hand in a painstaking, long drawn-out process. The sticks had to be manually bent as they came off the line. Colors were painted on by hand too. And since I know I’m not the only clumsy Clara out there, as many as a fifth of these candy canes shattered before they could be packaged.

But soon, technology was stepping in to smoothen out the wrinkles. Chicago’s “Bunte Brothers” confectionaries filed one of the earliest patents for a candy cane making machine in the 1920s. In 1957, an ordained Catholic Priest named Keller, brother-in-law to famous candy maker Robert McCormack of Mills-McCormack Candy Company (eventually renamed Bob’s Candies)  patented his own candy cane maker, “the Keller Machine.” It bent the candy canes automatically, cleaned up the cutting and painting process, and virtually eliminated those pesky cane breaks – which gave us that delightful sense of uniformity with identical candy canes in a box.

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I guess the bottom line here is we may never know the true origin story of one of our favorite Christmas treats. But if the scant clues tell us anything, it’s that it actually took a lot of creative people, inventive refinement, and good old-fashioned elbow grease to give us something so simple as a red and white striped peppermint stick at Christmas time. So think about that next time you pass the candy cane aisle. Because it sounds like a good excuse to splurge on some sugar. Just please, please don’t get a Kale cane.

SOURCES:

Thoughtco – “The History of Candy Canes”

https://www.thoughtco.com/history-of-candy-canes-1991767

Spangler Candy Company – “Candy Cane History & Legends”

https://www.spanglercandy.com/our-brands/candy-canes/legends

Candy History – “The History of Candy Cane”

http://www.candyhistory.net/candy-origin/candy-cane-history/

Wikepedia

“The Christmas Book” – P.V. Snyder

This will be the last post of 2021 for me! It has been an incredible year, and I want to thank all of you for coming along on the ride – and especially for getting this site to a whopping 900 followers, which I am immensely proud of and grateful for! I wish you a holiday season filled with health, happiness, and love, and I will see you back here in 2022 for more historical happenings and fun! 

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For more fun holiday candy articles, click here, here, and here.  

And for more Christmasy articles – click here, here, and here

And if you’re looking for some new Historical Fiction reading come Spring, check out my novel, “All the Lights Above Us” – Inspired by the Women of D-Day. It’s available for pre-order now and will be released in bookstores near you this May. Click Here for more information.

56 Comments on “A Walk Down Candy Cane Memory Lane

    • Eggnog!!!! 🙂 🙂 🙂 What a good idea Lee 🙂 Hope you have a great Christmas!

    • Thanks for the detective work on this. I am another who sees these more as decoration than as confection, but I will be testing that view. A few days ago I was shopping candy canes were on the list. The only ones in the store were described as either gourmet or artisan (I forget which) with a price to match. A call to the Mrs resulted in a purchase. So now I will find out if The Best Candy Cane Ever (or whatever they are) are actually good to eat. I guess it’s now or never.

      • Oooooh do report back and let me know if they were, indeed, the Best Candy Canes Ever! Because if they are I would like to try some

  1. I think I od’d on candy canes as a kid… I can’t stand them now. BUT they are Christmas to me and like someone else said, they make beautiful decorations and the kids love em. The selfie pic of you at the end is lovely.

  2. Who knew the history of candy could be so entertaining? Another sweet story, M.B. Have a wonderful holiday season. See you in 2022!

  3. M.B., I just adored this post! You shared wonderful history and a lot of good laughs, too. Well-written my friend! I have heard bits and pieces of each historical story. I’ll settle for a bit of all of them. And like you, I do NOT want a Kale cane! Nope! I’m wishing you peace, love, and joy this Christmas season. I look forward to “seeing” you in 2022 my friend!

    • Yay! I’m so glad you enjoyed it 🙂 Glad I have an ally against the Kale canes. Can’t even imagine what that would taste like and I have no desire to find out hahaha. A peaceful, joyful, and happy holidays season to you and yours <3

  4. Well, this was a fun read! I’m so glad you were born in a time of internet, because otherwise, you’d be elbow deep at a library surrounded by encyclopedias to trace all the history that you have learned.

    • Hahaha well I do actually remember digging through the old encyclopedias for reports in school 🙂 And while I do still spend a good deal of time at the library, it’s more out of pleasure than necessity. I’m very glad it’s much easier now, or I wouldn’t be able to write at least half of these articles!

    • That is definitely a way I eat candy canes too! Also with eggnog 🙂 A very Merry Christmas to you and yours as well

  5. Interesting article. I love the picture of Kitty getting at the candy canes and your selfie at the end!

    • Ha yeah she was obsessed with them when I put them out last year. Not sure why – maybe the smell? She’s a weird cat but we love her 🙂

  6. I love Peppermint but only in December. Then after that… I can’t get it near my lips.
    As for candy canes… I use them for a mocha coffee.
    Merry week to you!

    • Oooh I bet they would go good with Mocha! 🙂 A very good suggestion 🙂 A merry week and holidays to you too!

  7. Another fascinating post! Candy canes always look pretty but I don’t think I’ve ever eaten one. They always remind me of those giant sticks of ‘rock’ that we used to get on our holidays at the seaside. We brought them home as souveniers but never ate them.

    • What a fun memory! 🙂 I too enjoy the look of candy canes more than the taste, but I still always eat a couple over the holidays 🙂 They go especially good with eggnog or hot chocolate.

  8. I’m the only one in my family who actually likes to EAT candy canes, but we all love to decorate with them! Great post! Merry Christmas to you.

    • Yeah a lot of people don’t really like eating them, do they? All the more for you and me I guess 🙂 A very Merry Christmas to you!

  9. I loved this! I confess to being a candy cane purist. They have to be red and white: period. And they have to be peppermint. Santa brought me my first ones; I always found them hanging on the tree on Christmas morning.

    I do have one special candy cane story from my adult years. I was spending Christmas in Salisbury, at an inn there. On Christmas morning, I opened my door and found an orange and a candy cane; the innkeepers have placed them by everyone’s door. It was a lovely gesture — particularly since the innkeepers had been out carousing on Christmas Eve, locked themselves out of their own inn, and had to waken the guest to let them in the front door!

    Merry Christmas to you!

    • How sweet about that story in Salisbury! Little gestures like that certainly go a long way 🙂 And I’m with you on being a candy cane purist. Although once in a blue moon, I’ll spring for the cherry-flavored canes, but more for their pretty rainbow colors than the flavor 🙂

  10. Pingback: A Walk Down Candy Cane Memory Lane – Nelsapy

  11. Whatever the origin is, I’m grateful!! Peppermint bark is one of my all-time favorite things in life. I love the idea of a candy cane and hot chocolate. I hope you have a great holiday MB!!

    • How could I forget to mention peppermint bark in this article?! Soooo delicious 🙂 🙂

  12. I certainly know more about candy canes than I ever did before, MB. Grin. Thanks for the sweet history lesson. I certainly would have behaved myself better in church for the ten minutes it took me to consume one. I’m totally with you on Kale. 🙂 –Curt

    • Glad I could shed some light on the subject for you, and very glad you enjoyed the article! Agreed about candy canes in church. It should be a thing – for adults too 🙂 🙂

  13. Kale candy canes? GAK!! Very interesting story! Happy holidays and enjoy all of the great flavors of candy canes except Kale…and Mac and cheese…😬

  14. What a lovely Christmas post, MB! In the UK we have red and white striped sticks, called rock, that they sell at seaside places. Candy canes were a relatively new import. That said, what do I know? I moved away from Scotland 20 years ago! Merry Christmas and have a wonderful time in your new abode!

  15. Whoa – I thought it would have been easier to trace the origins of the candy cane. But thanks for doing all this digging for us.

    And belated Christmas greeting to you and yours. Best wishes for 2022!

    • I know right? Who knew they were so murky? But I often find that to be the case in candy histories, people don’t seem to write much down in that arena! 🙂 A belated Merry Christmas right back at you! And a happy new year

    • Very glad you enjoyed it! We had a decent Christmas season despite all the Omicron. Yyyyup, May 10 is the big day!!!

  16. only you can write a saga about candy … I’m all sweetened out!

    All the best for 2022, hope your publication is doing well 🙂

    • Haha I’m very glad you satiated your sweet tooth. May 10 will be here before we know it, fingers crossed the book goes over well!

  17. Wonderful, MB! As you know, I’m a sucker for Christmas traditions and their origins. that said, there is no candy cane tradition in the UK, so it was a relief to let you just get on with it… 🙂

    • 🙂 Haha yes I was surprised there wasn’t more info out there on the candy cane! Who knew such a popular treat could be so elusive. And I agree Christmas traditions are always very fun to explore

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