A candy cane is one of the more easily recognizable icons of Christmas. No other candy really comes close to the unmatched combination of peppermint-flavored sugar in a handy, hook-shaped package. Despite all these distinct features, we know very little of these treats’ origin. There are many stories that try to explain the shape, coloring and flavor of candy canes, but most exist only as anecdotes, usually turning up well after the invention of the candy itself. So if candy canes probably aren’t secret Js for Jesus, what do we know about where these ubiquitous treats came from?
The core of a candy cane is, appropriately, refined sugar. Persians developed methods for refining cane or beet sugar in the Middle Ages, which spread to Europe where candy makers started inventing new ways to tickle taste buds and rot teeth. Candy cane’s predecessors were simply white sugar sticks, made some form of sucrose and maybe some cream of tartar. The sugar was melted into syrup, then rolled and cut into convenient shapes. These simple candy sticks are referenced as far back as the 1600s, sometimes as pacifiers for (hopefully toothless) infants. The peppermint oil was added to the recipe sometime around 1900, even though that had been an ingredient in other foods since at least the first century AD.
As a titular element in candy canes, it’s a bit more frustrating to not have any evidence about why anyone decided to bend the original candy sticks. A popular anecdote states that a Catholic choirmaster from Cologne, Germany, requested the hooks for treats he was handing out to occupy fidgeting kids during mass. The sugary taste probably held the kids’ attention, but the hooked shape would supposedly remind them of the shepherds that visited the baby Jesus right after his birth. An equally undocumented explanation points to practicality over symbolism. When people started decorating Christmas trees in the 1600s, most ornaments were made from edible items like fruits, nuts and candies. A hooked candy stick was then easier to hang in a tree, which may also explain why candy canes became associated with the Christmas holiday in particular.
No matter which story is true, there’s a weird gap in candy cane history at this point. The choirmaster supposedly passed candy canes out in 1670, and decorating trees became popular enough to require regulation in some German towns in the early 1600s. Yet for over 100 years after these introductions, there were basically no direct accounts of candy canes at Christmas. The crooked confectioneries only turned up again in 1847, when August Imgard, a German-Swedish immigrant living in Ohio, made a big splash decorating his Christmas tree with paper ornaments, cookies and candy canes. After that point, variations of candy canes started turning up in popular culture a little more frequently, usually as a child’s gift at Christmas.
The candy canes that August Imgard hung on his tree weren’t the treats we know today. They were most likely white, as the iconic red striping wasn’t completely established at that point. Cook books from the 1860s have recipes for striped, peppermint candy sticks, but not canes. Again, there’s a bit of a gap in our knowledge, and it’s unclear when stripes became an expected element of candy canes. Adding the stripes didn’t require much technical innovation, as colored sugar-syrup just needs to be added and twisted into the still-soft candy before it hardens. Nonetheless, striped candy canes just weren’t widespread until the early 20th century, when we finally see them documented in mass produced images on Christmas cards. Since then the stripes’ introduction, people have layered religious symbolism in the candy’s design. The white candy can be thought to represent Jesus’ purity while the red stripes represent his blood, although since stripes had previously appeared on candy sticks not explicitly tied to Christmas, this quasi-Eucharistic symbolism probably wasn’t on candy makers’ minds when the color was added.
The last big change for candy canes came in 1957, when Gregory Harding Keller invented the Keller Machine. His brother-in-law, Bob McCormack, had been successfully selling candy canes since 1919, but getting the all-important crook just right was difficult to do by hand. The Keller Machine removed human error from the process, increasing the companies output significantly. Today, machines help melt, extrude, cut, bend and even seal candy canes in plastic. This way they can survive shipping, and maybe more than one year on your Christmas tree, although you’ll be missing out on the original peppermint scent and child-pacification properties if you never unwrap them.
Source: The Sweet and Sticky Story of Candy Canes by Rebecca Rupp, The Plate