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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Thoughtco – “The History of Candy Canes”
Spangler Candy Company – “Candy Cane History & Legends”
Candy History – “The History of Candy Cane”
“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!
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.