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The Origins of the Candy Cane at Christmas

Updated on November 28, 2014
JohnMello profile image

JohnMello is a writer, composer, musician and the author of books for children and adults.

The familiar striped swirling pattern of a typical candy cane somehow seems almost irresistible
The familiar striped swirling pattern of a typical candy cane somehow seems almost irresistible | Source

Candy canes serve a dual purpose during the festive Christmas season. They're used as decorations on Christmas trees and mantelpieces, and they find their way into stockings hung by the fire, ready to be savoured as presents get ripped open on the most important day of the year on the Western calendar.

Like so many traditions associated with Christmas, the significance of the candy cane has been all but lost. Created during a time when children were meant to be seen and not heard, and when few people were worried about the effects of sugar on young people, it's interesting to think that the humble candy cane was originally produced for much the same reason as we might use it today: to keep children quiet.

Surprisingly, the first candy canes that resemble those we see today were designed to be used in church. So how did they come about - and what was the rationale behind their invention?

Admire them hanging on the tree before the temptation overwhelms
Admire them hanging on the tree before the temptation overwhelms | Source

Candy Canes Come to Church

The first candy canes weren't anything new. Confectioners were already producing similar candies of hard rock in straight stick designs. But in order to allow children to enjoy these delicacies in church, a few subtle changes had to be made.

History credits the candy cane's design to a choirmaster at Cologne Cathedral in Cologne, Germany in 1670. The choirmaster was looking for a way to keep the children quiet during the Nativity scene. In those days we can imagine that the church would be full to bursting during Christmas ceremonies. It's also likely that the Nativity formed part of a much longer service that may have included music, sermons, lessons and rituals celebrating the birth of Christ. Naturally it would be difficult for children to sit through all of this without the tendency to get bored, fidget and start asking questions:

Is it almost over? When can we leave? Is it snowing yet? Why is that man wearing a dress? When can we start opening presents?

The choirmaster's idea was simple: come up with something they can put in their mouth, something to keep them occupied, something that will last a reasonably long time but that won't be seen as blasphemous. And that's what he did.

Traditional candy canes are red and white
Traditional candy canes are red and white | Source

Hooked on Candy Canes

The choirmaster's brainwave was to pass out sticks of hard rock to the children in an attempt to restore peace and to get on with the business at hand. He put in a request to the local sweet maker for a new kind of stick, one that had to be:

  • White in color
  • Bent at one end with a crook

To get round any objections from fellow clergymen or outraged parishioners, the choirmaster devised a plan to use the candy canes as teaching tools. So while the children were busy licking and sucking away, he explained to them the significance of the hook or crook, which he said should remind them of the crooks used by shepherds who visited the baby Jesus. The white color was a reference to the purity and sinlessness of Jesus - and the purity and sinlessness that humans aspire to.

A Christmas Tradition is Born

The choirmaster's creation caught on like wildfire. Soon this new shape of candy cane was being manufactured throughout Europe, handed out to children during plays about the Nativity. As time passed candy canes acquired their stripes, which these days can be any color imaginable and any flavor desired.

Candy canes appear in literature from about 1866, with the first known recipe published in 1844. Their association with Christmas has grown throughout the centuries, being hung on Christmas trees since the late 1800s. The earliest patents for candy cane making machines were filed by the Bunte Brothers from Chicago in the early 1920s, and the production of candy canes seems destined to continue well into the foreseeable future.

Making Candy Canes

Candy Cane Facts

Here are a few facts about candy canes to amuse your friends with during the holiday season:

  • Originally candy canes were pure white to represent the sinless state of the baby Jesus
  • When a candy cane is turned upside down it looks like the letter J, which some believe represents the first letter in the name Jesus
  • In the United States National Candy Cane Day is celebrated on December 26
  • Almost 2 billion candy canes are manufactured each year, with most of them sold during the four weeks leading up to Christmas
  • Striped candy canes were first produced in the early part of the 20th century
  • The largest candy cane ever made was 36 and a half feet

So next time you find yourself giving in to the minty temptation of a candy cane, at least you'll be able to say you know where the candy cane tradition came from in the first place.

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    • JohnMello profile image

      JohnMello 5 years ago from England

      Thanks ktrapp! Glad you enjoyed it.

    • ktrapp profile image

      Kristin Trapp 5 years ago from Illinois

      This candy cane history lesson was really interesting. I have never before heard of its origins and the choirmaster's role in it. My children used to be given a candy cane poem in Sunday School each Christmas season with a candy cane attached. The poem referenced 'white' for purity, the 'J' for Jesus, and its staff shape for the shepherd. I guess the candy cane is no different from many inventions, where necessity is its mother--in this case, keeping kids quiet in church. Terrific Hub.