Why We Eat Candy Canes At Christmas

Candy canes are one of the many traditions that have become synonymous with the Christmas season over years. Is it even really Christmas if there isn't a candy cane sticking up out of your hot chocolate or hanging on your Christmas tree?

According to History, the National Confectioners Association reports that candy canes are the most popular non-chocolate candy during the month of December, with 90 percent of them sold between Thanksgiving and Christmas. This comes out to 1.76 billion candy canes produced in the United States each year. But where did they originate? And how did their association with Christmas come to be?

One story shared by Carly Schildhaus of the National Confectioners Association posited that a 1670 choirmaster at the Cologne Cathedral in Germany handed out sugar sticks to the younger members of the choir "to keep them quiet during the Living Creche ceremony." The sticks were shaped into shepherds' crooks to keep with the holiday theme.

Sweets expert Susan Benjamin of True Treats Historic Candy agreed that this may be true, noting that "pulled sugars" were very popular in 17th century Europe. She shared a theory of the crook at the end of the cane as a reference to the shepherds of the Nativity scene, but also pointed out that Germans may well have added the hook in order to hang candy canes on Christmas trees, a practice that continues today. 

Why are candy canes striped?

It's widely accepted that the white candy cane originated in Wooster, Ohio, in 1847, when a German immigrant named August Imgard decorated a tree with paper ornaments and candy canes. The distinctive red and white stripes didn't show up until the turn of the 20th century, emerging as the most popular color scheme once mass production was possible, according to Schildhaus.

Benjamin noted that legend has it that the stripes served as "a secret code among persecuted Christians in Germany or England in the 17th century," with the stripe representing the blood of Jesus, although she isn't sure of the truthfulness of this claim. She did dismiss the theory that the candy cane's shape references a "J" in honor of Jesus, calling it an urban legend.

Today I Found Out reported that some credit candy maker Bob McCormack with adding the stripe to a candy cane in the 1920s, although it's possible that McCormack merely popularized the stripe rather than inventing it. Per CBS News, McCormack's candy factory in Albany, Georgia cornered the market on candy cane production, and Bob's Candies became the top candy cane maker by volume in the world. McCormack's brother-in-law, a Catholic priest named Gregory Harding Keller, invented the Keller Machine for use in the factory, which increased production from the thousands to the millions and automated the bending process that creates the candy cane's signature hook. Pretty sweet.