Why We Eat Candy Canes At Christmas

For many people around the world, Christmas hysteria hits as soon as December begins. Whether you celebrate December 25 as a religious holiday or not, you've almost certainly seen the unstoppable momentum that surrounds the occasion and the days leading up to it. From tree-trimming mania and colorful outdoor lights to cloyingly sweet eggnog and gingerbread houses, all the stuff that goes with Christmas is pervasive to say the least. While the traditions tied to the celebrations bring either holiday cheer or holiday stress (your preference), it's always fun to find out the reasons behind the rituals.

We have come to know this sweet, striped, J-shaped confection as one of the dominant symbols of Christmas. Not only is it eaten as a minty treat, the candy cane is often used as a decorative addition. You may find them hanging on a festive tree, propped around a sugary gingerbread house, or artfully displayed on a windowsill. While this familiar candy is everywhere come the end of the year, where did it come from in the first place and how did it get its iconic shape?

Candy cane origins

As with many longstanding traditions we have come to accept as facts of life, the origin of the candy cane is largely undocumented. Even so, there are theories. According to the History Channel's retelling of legends, a prototype version of the ubiquitous red-and-white striped candy was ingeniously invented in 1670 by a choirmaster at the Cologne Cathedral in Germany who gave a white, cane-shaped candy to the children during a church service. The shape was meant to resemble a shepherd's crook. When the candy made its way to the U.S., confectioners infused it with the peppermint flavor we are familiar with today, along with some red stripes to jazz up its appearance. Plain white seemed, well, just too plain.

Why peppermint?

The origin of the peppermint flavor so recognizable in candy canes is unclear. According to National Geographic, no clear connection could ever be made between combining a sugary confection with peppermint. However, ubiquitous mint oil was believed to cure illnesses related to digestion. As such, some historians believe that colonialists brought it from Europe to America during the late 18th and 19th centuries to help alleviate their ailments. Altoid created its famous mints in 1781. Of course, all of that leaves the candy cane flavor still somewhat shrouded in mystery.

Sure, throw some canes on Christmas trees

According to Spangler, a prominent American manufacturer of candy canes stateside, a German-Swedish immigrant to Wooster, Ohio, named August Imgard turned candy canes into ornaments in 1870. The story goes that Imgard, longing for home, decided to cut down a tree to decorate in his brother's house — a practice common in his homeland, Bavaria. He went on to humbly decorate the tree with the striped confection, which firmly implanted candy canes into our collection of Christmas objects — a tradition still effectively in place today.

Religious symbolism of Christmas candy

Some (disproven) urban legends indicate that when Indiana candy makers wanted to infuse these candies with more religious symbolism, they really got into it and have benefited from it ever since. They retold the story of the candy cane with Christian symbols in mind. They said the white stood for Jesus' purity and in birth and life, while the red stripes were symbolic of the blood he shed. The J shape stood for his name as well as the shepherd's staff. Heavy stuff for candy. While the candy cane was not created as a religious symbol, the symbols are still taught in Sunday schools and churches today.