A Brief History of Candy Canes

350 Years of History Behind a Favorite Candy Treat

candy cane
Candy Canes. Getty Images

Almost everyone alive grew up familiar with the hard red-and-white candy with the curved end known as a candy cane, but few people realize just how long this favorite treat has been in existence. 

The Candy Cane's Origins

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 as a favorite confection. 

It was around the beginning of the 17th century that Christians in Europe began to adopt the use of Christmas trees as part of their Christmas celebrations.

They trees were often decorated using foods such as cookies and sometimes sugar-stick candies. The original Christmas tree candy was a straight stick 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The first historical reference to the familiar cane shape though goes back to 1670, when the choirmaster at the Cologne Cathedral in Germany first bent the sugar-sticks into the shape of 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 further decorate the canes.

The first historical reference to the candy cane in America was in 1847, when a German immigrant called August Imgard decorated the Christmas tree in his Wooster, Ohio home with candy canes.

The Candy Cane Earns Its Stripes

About fifty years later, the first red-and-white striped candy canes appeared. No one knows who exactly invented the stripes, but and based on historical Christmas cards, we know that prior to the year 1900 no striped candy canes appeared. Illustrations of striped candy canes didn't show up until the beginning of the 20th century.

Around the same time, candy-makers began adding peppermint and wintergreen flavors to their candy canes and those flavors became accepted as the traditional favorites.

In 1919, a candymaker named Bob McCormack began making candy canes, and by the middle of the century, his company, Bob's  Candies, became widely 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.

Candy Cane Legends and Myths

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 three red stripes were said to symbolize 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 some will find them pleasant to contemplate.

As noted earlier, candy canes weren't even around until the 17th century, which makes some of these claims improbable.