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.

Candy canes are expensive to make domestically

Some argue that expensive sugar prices that grew out of the U.S. sugar plan during the New Deal era forced many American candy makers out of the country. Even producers that imported sugar from abroad faced large importing quotas that proved cost-prohibitive in some cases, making the domestic manufacturing of candy canes exceedingly difficult. As a result, candy companies like Atkinson Candy Co. have moved the production of candy canes to facilities in Guatemala where their business can withstand the high sugar prices.

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.

Make your own candy canes

If you're feeling ambitious, try your hand at making your own candy canes this season. This recipe for homemade ones lets you play around with sugar and coloring during the holidays. If you've always wanted to make candy, I can't think of a better one to start with than this famous Christmas one. What could be more fun?

Well, there you have it. Now that you know where candy canes come from and why we eat them at Christmas time, aren't you just dying to run out and buy (or make) some?

Culinary uses for that 24-pack of candy canes I know you had to buy

Even though you wanted five candy canes this season, you probably had to buy in bulk. What should you do with all of your striped candies? I've got a few ideas.

Consider making a splashy peppermint cocktail for Christmas. This happy little drink recipe from Boulder Locavore is colorful, tasty, and inventive. There's no better way to make yourself a part of the ever-evolving candy cane historical landscape than by whipping up something boozy to sip on. Here, candy cane and vodka make a winning combo. Peppermint-infused vodka with creme de cacao bitters might just become the holiday go-to.

If you're feeling sweet and crafty, try making your own candy cane-coated marshmallows. This recipe from Playin' With My Food speaks to my Martha Stewart wannabe soul in a powerful way. Homemade marshmallows covered in minty shards of candy cane is a pretty gift for the ones you love. While they may be a little labor intensive, I am confident you will find the charming results more than worthwhile. Yum!

If you have a gathering to attend come December 25, I highly recommending wowing everyone when you waltz in with a beautiful peppermint layered cake. This lovely recipe from the Vanilla Bean Blog is dreamy as can be. Layers of moist, velvety chocolate cake are frosted in peppermint icing and decorated with crushed candy canes. This dessert is basically a winner all around and deserves to be made on Christmas.

Candy cane crafts for everyone

Make like August Imgard and use your candy canes as decorations this year. Get out your crafting supplies and make some unique red-and-white Christmas decor for your home. Enlist a few of your favorite helpers to maximize the good times.

Get creative with your holiday decorations when you assemble this simple hanging star wreath from Sweet Pea using, you guessed it, candy canes! Using 10 candy canes, scissors, and your trusty glue gun, this clever DIY project results in festive hanging stars for your windows. Make some for yourself and some as gifts for friends.

These adorable candy cane reindeer from Be a Fun Mum are perfect for assembling with little ones. Candy canes are held together by brown pipe cleaners and ribbon to magically form Santa's charming Christmas eve helpers. These little guys are great for gifting or lining up on your windowsill as decoration.

Or you can turn candy canes into Christmas trees with this tutorial from Mom On Timeout. Using a bit of green felt, a few candy canes, and some creative tree trimming materials, this easy DIY results in delightful holiday treats that are ideal for children and adults alike.