December 26 – National Candy Cane Day

Posted on December 26, 2014

Today is the day when some might be taking candy canes OFF the tree and eating them. And some might be eating the candy canes they got in their stockings.

Legend tells us that a candy maker in Indiana thought up the candy cane in 1847. He knew that the story of Jesus's birth tells of shepherd and their flocks of sheep coming to worship the baby Jesus, and he thought a cane-shaped candy would remind people of the shepherd's crook. Turned upside down, the candy made a J-for-Jesus shape. The candy maker decided to use red and white because those colors are associated with Christmas, but also because they could be thought of as symbolizing the blood of Jesus and his purity. Last but not least, the hook shape would allow people to hang the candies on decorations.

But – did you notice? – I used the word legend for a reason! There is no evidence for this nameless candy maker in Indiana and no evidence for red-and-white striped candy canes as early as 1847. There is another legend about a choirmaster at Cologne, Germany, who came up with the idea for candy canes way back in 1670. Again, I used the word legend because there is no evidence to back this story, either – and there are significant historical problems with the story, according to (a good resource to check when you're wondering if something you read in an email or on the internet is true). 

It's really hard to know just who invented what we think of as a candy cane. A recipe for a peppermint-flavored candy stick with red stripes appears back in 1844—but it was a straight stick. The best evidence for cane-shaped candies is that someone decided to take a typical straight white candy stick and put a bend in it – maybe to represent a shepherd's crook, or maybe so that it could be hung on a tree, who knows? – in the second half of the 1800s. (White candy canes appear on Christmas cards before 1900.) Eventually, someone else decided to add festive red stripes to the white candy cane. (Striped canes started to appear on Christmas cards in the early 1900s. Here is an example:)

One of the early producers of candy canes was Bob McCormack. He had his workers bending the candy sticks by hand as they came off the assembly line, before they cooled and hardened. Not only was this time-consuming and labor-intensive, there was a lot of breakage. Apparently one out of every five candy sticks broke as a worker tried to bend it. McCormack's brother-in-law, a Catholic priest named Gregory Keller, came up with a better way to bend the candy sticks: he invented and patented a machine that would shape the candy sticks into canes when they were just the right temperature. That was in 1957.

Actually, although almost all candy canes produced today are mass-produced by machine, there are some candy makers that still make candy canes by hand every Christmas. Of course, they cannot make nearly as many – so handmade canes are rarer and more expensive!

Find out more about making candy canes here.

Candy canes aren't always striped, and they aren't always red-and-white. These days many wild colors of candy canes are available.

The traditional flavor of candy canes is peppermint. Lots of other flavors are available now: everything from Tutti-Fruity and birthday cake to gravy, pickle, and bacon! Yikes!!!

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