Candy canes are entrenched as an element of the Christmas season. How this came about seems to be a matter that is part truth, part legend, and part marketing myth.
In fact, every couple of years controversy swells about the “religious” symbolism of candy canes — everything from the colors red and white to the “J” shape of the candy representing everything associated with Christianity and the Christmas story.
Well, some folks might make religion symbolism of candy canes today. But it never started that way.
The earliest known mention of peppermint candy dates back more than 250 years ago to Germany where the inventor of the candy used it to keep restless children quiet in church.
Because it was used in a Church setting the story has been spun that the candy was shaped like the letter “J” to represent Jesus or in the shape of a shepherd’s crook, reminiscent of the lowly shepherds who were present at the Nativity. The sticks made of mostly sugar were colored white and red. White, to represent the purity of Christ, and red to represent Christ’s blood, which was shed for all mankind.
That is a great story that simply is not true. The original candy canes were not red and white, they were sort of creamed colored. And they were not shaped at all, they were just a hard candy stick, common of many flavors of typical hard candy. Their minty taste was their lone distinction and thus it remained for a long, long time.
For centuries peppermint candies remained a fairly local Christmas tradition in Germany — along with various other kinds of sugared treats commonly used during the festive season.
But candy canes appear to have a more American basis for Christmas tradition and they appear to be more of a marketer’s ploy than an actual religious symbol. Bobs Candies of New York appears to be the first mass producer of candy canes in the U.S., topping more than 25 million unit sales in the early 1920s. Production there was expanded and worked year round to meet the seasonal demand for candy canes at Christmas, it’s festive red and white colors making the confection as much about decorating as it was about sweets.
Years later candy maker Bob Spangler, a name still associated with mass produced candy canes, jumped into the Christmas candy fray with his purchase of the A-Z Candy Company, who was also a large producer of candy canes. Spangler took the love and tradition of candy canes as an American holiday tradition by getting boxes of Spangler candy canes into the blossoming new markets of mass merchants, who were opening stores in new shopping centers being built across the U.S.
It wasn’t until candy canes were mass produced in the mid-20th century that the dubious stories of its origins began to appear in books, articles and even songs. The rush of Christian sources to adopt any symbol or tradition of Christmas reached far into the 20th century through the effort to make candy canes, eggnog and even fruit cake symbols, rather than mere iconic elements, of the Christmas season.
Candy canes are tasty, candy canes are festive, candy canes are fun. And Christians may love them a lot.
But there is nothing symbolic about them and their origins have nothing really to do with Christianity or the ancient celebration of Christmas.