Candy canes can be found everywhere at Christmastime. In many ways, these red-striped, crooked treats are the symbol of Christmas. They hang from trees in our living rooms, Santas all over the country hand them out to children, and they are often found in stockings on Christmas morning.
But, for all their popularity, no one seems to know the true origin of these sugar sticks.
The Popular Legend
Sugar came onto the scene in the Middle Ages as a medicinal remedy to a whole host of ailments. Naturally, because it's sugar, it's popularity grew. European confectioners quickly caught onto the trend and began spinning sugar and infusing them with essential oils sometime in the 16th century. The popularity of these treats only continued to grow giving rise to the legend of the advent of the candy cane in the 17th century.
It is said that a German choirmaster first gave children candy canes at a Christmas Eve mass to keep them silent for the duration of the mass. According to legend, he had these popular treats bent into the festive shape of a shepherd's crook to remind the children why they were at church in the first place.
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To this day, this story remains the most popular legend for the advent of the candy cane. Unfortunately, there is no supporting historical evidence for this claim.
Why Do Candy Canes Look Like They Do?
Another bit of folklore surrounding the candy cane is its inherent Christian symbolism. It is said that the white symbolizes the purity of Christ while the striped red stains represents the scourging that Jesus received.
Their shape, too, is also part of the Christian design. Many say that they are either formed to echo a J for "Jesus" or that they are the crooks of the shepherds that came to witness his birth.
As lovely and symbolic as this story is, again there are no facts to base these claims on. In fact, until the 1900s candy canes did not even look remotely like they do today.
Americans Invent the Candy Cane
It isn't until the early 20th century that we see the familiar hook-shaped, red-striped candy canes of today. Before that, candy canes were more of a white staff. At the turn of the century, tree decorating was increasing in popularity as a tradition.
Therefore, it may be that these centuries-old sweets gained a new form to accommodate their new found popularity as ornaments. It may also be why they are so intimately associated with Christmas.
Where the stripe comes from remains a mystery. Many claim that the signature red stripe that candy canes bear comes from Bob McCormack who, in 1919, began producing what would be considered a modern candy cane locally in Albany, Georgia.
Eventually, his humble business evolved into the largest peppermint-flavored candy cane producer in the world. This prompted almost everyone to follow suit and left us with the red-striped, minty candy cane that we all know and love today.
Regardless of its origin, candy canes have been and will remain a beloved sweet during the Christmas season.