What is the History of the Candy Cane?

Niki Foster
Niki Foster

Many stories circulate about the invention of the candy cane as a religious symbol of the Christmas season. However, the confection did not appear in its current striped and hooked form until early in the 20th century. The first incarnation of the candy cane was a straight white stick, first invented in the 17th century as a decoration for Christmas trees.

Legend says the red stripes on the candy cane represent Christ's scourging before crucifixion.
Legend says the red stripes on the candy cane represent Christ's scourging before crucifixion.

A popular legend holds that a candy maker created the candy cane to resemble a "J" for Jesus, or a shepherd's crook when held the other way. The white candy is said to symbolize Jesus' purity, or the virgin birth. The three small red stripes are a reminder of the scourging that Christ received before His crucifixion, and the large single stripe is a symbol of the blood He shed. The peppermint flavor is similar to that of an herb called hyssop, featured in purification rites described in the Old Testament.

Legend suggests that the candy cane was made to resemble a shepherd's crook.
Legend suggests that the candy cane was made to resemble a shepherd's crook.

While the candy cane holds these connotations for many Christians, they were not the original inspiration for the holiday treat. It was initially a simple decoration for Christmas trees. In 1670, the choirmaster of Cologne Cathedral had the idea of bending the candy into the shape of shepherd's crooks in order to add a religious connotation and handed the treats out to children during Mass. For nearly 200 years, the candy cane was white and flavored only with sugar.

The candy cane remained pure white until the 1920s, when confectioner Bob McCormick of Albany, Georgia added the well-known red stripes. Red-striped peppermint candy first appeared in the mid-19th century in the Swedish town of Granna, and McCormick may have been inspired by these treats. The red and white candy canes were hand-twisted at first, and the process was mechanized in the 1950s.

Red-striped peppermint candies, which date back to the mid 1800s, were inspiration for the candy cane.
Red-striped peppermint candies, which date back to the mid 1800s, were inspiration for the candy cane.
Niki Foster
Niki Foster

In addition to her role as a wiseGEEK editor, Niki enjoys educating herself about interesting and unusual topics in order to get ideas for her own articles. She is a graduate of UCLA, where she majored in Linguistics and Anthropology.

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Discussion Comments

anon357345

I am doing a report on this and I love this site. Like, who knew that candy canes were made of sugar!

Leonidas226

It makes sense that the J shape would be adopted for convenient hanging of the candy canes on a Christmas tree. I really can't see how a straight "Candy Cane" would ever make a good Christmas decoration. After all, I don't think it was ever called "Candy stick."

ShadowGenius

There are candy canes made specifically for dogs which we love to get for our dog Daisy every Christmas. It's so cute to see her enjoying the holiday season along with the rest of us.

Tufenkian925

There is a lot of syncretism between Christianity and older pagan religions in the Christmas traditions of the West. Candy canes are likely no exception to the general rule of thumb that many articles and symbols of the Christmas season were originally pagan in nature. The Christmas tree, for example, although normally decorated with a top angel or star, comes originally from Germanic animism. Santa Claus/ Father Christmas, also, is likely to have come from an earlier winter deity.

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