Candy Canes are one of the few holiday traditions I never really bought into. As a child, I migrated away from the peppermint sticks and towards the LifeSavers Christmas books. In my youth, cherry and butter rum trumped peppermint every time.
But the Candy Canes still represent Christmas to me, even if I don’t eat them. The question I have is how did this happen? When did candy canes come to mean Christmas?
The answer lies in the past of course. Sugar, and items containing sugar, were expensive commodities. As such, they were thought of as luxury items, rather than the cheap treats that we view them as today.
Not only was sugar a luxury item, but it was also viewed as medicinal. If someone had a sore throat, or a bit of a cough, to the doctor’s they went, where they were giving a sugar crystals or sticks to suck upon.
It probably didn’t take long for people to note that theses sticks faired poorly at curing flus and colds, but still tasted rather dandy. They became a treat, more than cure. So much so, that it is said that a choirmaster at the Cologne Cathedral in Germany handed out sugar sticks among his young singers to keep them quiet during the long Living Creche ceremony. Legend has it that to honor the occasion, he had the candies bent into shepherds’ crooks, although this is speculation. The first candy canes were almost entirely sugar, no peppermint, and most assuredly had no red striping.
The Christmas aspect comes into play when you realize that treats, especially expensive, hard to come by treats, could not be afforded by the masses with any great regularity. But during those special times when one would spend a little more, candy canes were purchased. As Christmas has been one of the primary “special times” in Europe, the sugar canes became primarily associated with the Holiday.
Confectioners and apothecaries took note of the popularity and started adding flavorings. Cinnamon, anise, and peppermint oil were all probably added for medicinal purposes at first, but as before, people found that these tasted pretty darn good, regardless if you were sick or not. So new flavors were discovered and introduced. The result? The jars of stick candy found at the Cracker Barrel, or other “homey” shops can be traced almost directly back to these creations.
It’s reported that it was August Imgard of Ohio who popularized putting the canes on Christmas trees. In 1847, Christmas was coming back into vogue in the United States and the Christmas tree was also gaining popularity. It was only a matter of time before someone put two and two together.
No one knows for sure who put the red stripes on candy cane, or when. But we can look to Christmas Cards to provide some clues. In the late 19th century and prior, cards showed trees decorated with plain white canes. Sometime after 1900 striped ones started appearing on many of the printed cards.
There are some folks who believe the following about Candy Canes — a faithful Indiana candy maker developed the treat as a witnessing tool. The candy is hard because God’s church is founded on the rock. It’s white because of Jesus’s purity, and the red stands for Christ’s blood. Cane’s are Peppermint flavored as a reference to cleansing hyssop, and curved to represent a shepherd’s staff and/or the letter “J” for Jesus.
Most of claims are likely false, as there’s no proof to any of these assertions. Sorry. It’d be easier to prove these claims if one person had invented the candy, but that simply did not happen.