There are some things that spring naturally to mind at Christmas: trees and trimmings, Santa and stockings and, of course, candy canes. These colorful sweeties are such a part of the holiday that we seldom wonder how they came to be, or the special meaning behind this treat.
Decorating Christmas trees with candy goes back almost as far as Christmas trees, themselves. The forerunner of the modern candy canes are first mentioned in a historical reference to Cologne Cathedral, Germany, in 1670. An insightful clergyman, anticipating a sanctuary full of wiggling, restless children, prepared special canes to maintain order during a long Christmas service. He arranged to have the candy sticks bent into the shape of a cane, reminding the children that Jesus is ‘the Good Shepherd’. The candy canes became an annual event in Cologne, and the idea spread as fast as Santa’s sleigh.
For a couple of centuries, nothing much happened. The candy, still a pure white, crooked cane, spread through Europe. It was introduced to the US, fittingly enough, by a German immigrant August Imgard around 1847. Decorating Christmas trees with the sweet, hard candy caught on quickly in the area of Wooster, Ohio, and soon spread further.
Red striping on the holiday favorites appeared almost 50 years later. No one knows for sure who first started the tradition, but Christmas cards dating prior to 1900 show solid white canes hanging on trees; cards after that year show the now familiar red-and-white cane. Peppermint was added to the sugar cane at about the same time.
Legends of the candy’s origin give the components of the candy cane strong Christian meanings. The large red stripe is believed to represent the blood of Christ, shed to reconnect lost souls with a loving Father-God. The three smaller red stripes honor the Father, Son and Holy Spirit (three-in-one God). The white base represents the purity of Christ, and the hardness of the candy is likened to the foundation of the church – Christ’s sinless nature. While there is no historical evidence to support any of these claims, the legend, like the candy itself, has become a part of Christmas.
So, the next time you hang a candy cane on your Christmas tree or take a lick of the peppermint treat, think back on a clever preacher and be grateful – a plan to keep children still during church has evolved into one of the fondest parts of a special holiday.