The candy cane is the Christmas equivalent of the Easter egg.
While candy canes are made year-round—to the tune of 1.76 billion produced annually—they are inextricably and, for many, inexplicably linked to Christmas. On the surface, a peppermint hook seems to have as much—or as little—to do with the birth of Jesus Christ as a chocolate egg has to with his death.
And yet, every year, the halls are decked with red and white spiraled sugar sticks intended to be sucked on until they become pointy, minty daggers.
But why the upside down "J" shape? Why the spiral lines? Why the peppermint flavoring? This food is such a basic part of Christmas imagery that we rarely question its existence or relevance.
We spoke to Ace Collins, an expert on all things Christmas and author of The Stories Behind The Great Traditions of Christmas and The Stories Behind The Best-Loved Songs of Christmas. He's also written more than 70 thriller and mystery novels (including The Fruitcake Murders) and won the Christy Award for "novels of excellence written from a Christian worldview."
Obviously, he was the man for the job. We caught up with him in between radio interviews, because, he says, December is a time where his writing takes a backseat to media appearances requesting his expertise.
"When you know the story behind everything from old carols to 'Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer,' you can give them the insight," Ace told MUNCHIES. "There's so many great stories. Christmas is a time machine and it allows people to reconnect with the past. It's a month-long time-travel trip that only happens once a year."
So, let's hop in our red- and white-striped time machine and get to the bottom of the origins of the candy cane.
"The cane itself goes back to Germany in 1670," he explains. "A choir director at a large Catholic church in Koln needed to find a way to stop a recurring problem. The children's choir would do their song early, sit down, and then they would start getting antsy—passing notes, making faces, and picking on each other—the same things that happen to this day."
Basing his story on church records, Ace says that the choirmaster got creative and decided to give them hard candy. "You have to suck on hard candy instead of eating it. That would keep them occupied and keep them from getting into trouble. It would keep kids quiet." Essentially, hard candy was used to shut fidgety kids up during midnight mass.
But what about the cane shape? How did the candy cane actually become a cane? Ace says that's where religion comes into the picture.
"This choirmaster realized that using candy in this way would be frowned upon by the Church. He convinced a local candy maker to bend the top of the hard candy stick and told the parents that it represents the staff of the shepherd Jesus and that the white represents the purity of Christ. That's when it was first associated with Christmas, and after that, candy makers began making these hooks and hanging them on Christmas trees."
But what about the stripes? Those iconic lines are thanks to American innovation and mechanization, according to Ace.
"Bob McCormick, a candy maker in Albany, Georgia, figured out how to makes those spirals without hand painting. He invented a machine would do that, otherwise it would have been incredibly time-consuming.
Then, a guy in Indiana, using the same system, began striping it with three stripes, which he said represented the Trinity, and the red was the blood of Christ. American candy makers also interpreted the shape as meaning 'J' for Jesus."
So, there you have it: all of the key components of the candy cane and their weird explanations. Hard candy was used to make kids STFU. The "J" shape was designed to look like a shepherd's staff. The white candy is the purity of Christ, the red is his blood, and the spirals represent the Holy Trinity. "That's the condensed version, but all of these stories are corroborated," according to Ace.
But religion aside, though, candy canes tap into something even more primal.
"We want familiarity because it brings us comfort, and seeing that candy cane has been part of Christmas forever. It brings us a great deal of comfort and security—even if you're celebrating Christmas in a secular way. It reminds us of the innocence of Christmas and childhood."
Ah, simpler times, when we were kept quiet by licking sugar sticks of Jesus's blood.