The History of Candy Canes

The origin of the candy cane goes back over 350 years.

candy cane
Candy Canes. Getty Images

The origin of the candy cane goes back more than 350 years, back when candy-makers, both professional and amateur, were making hard sugar sticks. 

It was around the seventeenth century that Christians in Europe began to adopt the use of Christmas trees as part of their Christmas celebrations. They trees were decorated using foods like cookies and and sometimes sugar-stick candies. The original candy was straight and completely white in color.

The first historical reference to the familiar cane shape though goes back to 1670, when the choirmaster at the Cologne Cathedral in Germany, bent the sugar-sticks into canes to represent a shepherd's staff. The all-white candy canes were given out to children during the long-winded nativity services. The clergymen's custom of handing out candy canes during Christmas services would eventually spread throughout Europe and later to America. By then, the canes were still white, but sometimes the candy-makers would add sugar-roses to decorate the canes further.

The first historical reference to the candy cane in America was in 1847, when a German immigrant called August Imgard decorated the Christmas tree in his Wooster, Ohio home with candy canes.

About fifty years later, the first red-and-white striped candy canes appeared. No one knows who exactly invented the stripes and Christmas cards prior to the year 1900 showed only all-white candy canes.

Illustrations of striped candy canes didn't show up until the beginning of the century. Around the same time, candy-makers added peppermint and wintergreen flavors to their candy canes and those flavors became accepted as the traditional favorites.

There are many also other legends and religious beliefs surrounding the humble candy cane.

Many of them depict the candy cane as a secret symbol for Christianity during the times when Christians were living under more oppressive circumstances. It was said that the cane was shaped like a "J" for Jesus and that the red-and-white stripes represented Christ's blood and purity. And the three red stripes? Well they symbolized the Holy Trinity. The hardness of the candy was to represent the Church's foundation on solid rock and the candy cane's peppermint flavor represented the use of hyssop, an herb referred to in the Old Testament. However, no historical evidence exists to support these claims, although they are quite lovely thoughts. As I noted earlier, candy canes weren't even around until the 17th century.

In 1919, a candymaker named Bob McCormack began making candy canes and by the middle of the century, his company, Bob's candies, became famous for their candy canes. Initially, the canes had to bent by hand to make the 'J' shape. That changed with the help of his brother-in-law Gregory Keller who invented a machine to automate candy cane production.