Christmas time is fast approaching this year, and with it, we see the annual reemergence of candy canes. Candy canes dominate the seasonal aisles in grocery stores, and are seen used as inspiration for decorations for the season. Yet, why are candy canes associated with Christmas at all, and where did they even come from to begin with? Better yet, how did the candy cane earn its stripes?
While there are plenty of myths that float around about the origin of the candy cane, none of the myths actually has any supporting evidence behind them. The most popularized story about the candy cane is about its symbolism. This myth states that the white base color of the candy cane symbolizes Jesus’ purity; the red stripes symbolize Jesus’ blood when he died on the cross; and the J shape was chosen to represent the J in Jesus.
Many versions of this exist, and a more common retelling of this involves a candy maker in Indiana attempting to make a Christian symbol for Christmas to hand out to children. While this is a fun and festive version, none of it really appears to be true according to historians at the Smithsonian.
The first hole that we can poke in this story is that the precursor to candy canes, hard candy sticks, were first reported to have been invented in Germany in the 17th century, which just so happens to be long before Indiana was even a thought. There is also another story existing that a choirmaster bent peppermint sticks into the shape of a shepherd staff in the 17th century to give to children during live nativity scenes to keep them from being bored. There is very little to no evidence for this myth as well.
Germany was one of the first regions in which the candy cane seems to have first appeared and to first receive its crooked end. Was this because it was easier to hang on a Christmas tree? Around this time in Germany, the tradition of hanging dried fruits and other treats on Christmas trees became popularized, so why not hang candy sticks?
Two centuries later, America seems to have been introduced to the candy cane, which was often traced back to a German immigrant (August Imgard) who is also credited with introducing the Christmas tree to Ohio in 1847. According to the National Confectioners Association, Imgard decorated a small spruce tree with ornaments and candy canes. Yet these were not described as red-striped candy canes; they were simply described as white hard candy with a crook. Images and mentionings of the ever-loved red-striped candy cane did not appear until the start of the 20th century.
Christmas cards from the 19th century indicate that the all-white candy cane was still common. However, in the early 20th century, Christmas cards began to show images of red striped candy canes as decorations and candy treats. This is also when candy makers started to experiment with flavors for these striped candy sticks, and landed on peppermint flavoring. Later on in the 1950s, Bob McCormack, possibly the first to make them striped and flavored, became one of the largest producers of the peppermint candy cane. Today, about 2 billion candy canes are produced every year.