This week, we examine a history myth that gets a lot of “air time” during the holidays: the supposedly religious origins of the candy cane. The story (seen mostly in emails from your nutty uncle) goes something like this:
In the early 20th century, a confectioner in Indiana created the candy cane as a symbol of the Christian faith. He incorporated red stripes to symbolize the blood and suffering of Christ. He added a hook to the cane in order to form the letter “J” for Jesus, or, viewed another way, to symbolize the staffs carried by the Wise Men on the night of the nativity.
According to many versions of this myth, he even had the foresight to make the candy hard (as though solid sugar could be any other way) to represent the strength of the church.
Another version of the Candy Cane story takes us all the way back to Cologne, Germany in 1670, where a choirmaster allegedly asked a local confectioner to put a crook at the top of some sugar sticks – once again, as a symbol of the Wise Men’s staffs, in order to justify giving candy to the children during choir practice. Apparently, this choirmaster thought that giving candy to restless children would somehow improve their attention spans! In this version of the story the candy canes are pure white, in order to symbolize the purity of Christ.
As for the Indiana confectioner and the German choir master, there is simply no evidence for either claim. In both stories, it curious to note that we are told many intimate details about the person who invented the candy cane – as well as why he invented it – yet we never learn the inventor’s name.
Still another version tells us that candy canes originated in the 17th century as a secret symbol used by Catholic or Protestant Christians in order to recognize each other, especially in places where there was heavy bigotry towards one of those strains of Christianity. This is my favorite candy cane myth, because it is not only untrue, it is one of the many myths that claim that common songs, children’s stories, and day to day items had their origins in helping persecuted Catholics or Protestants learn their denominational lessons in secret. We’ve busted many of these myths in past episodes, but they’re the gift that keeps on giving.
Like almost all of these stories, there is no historical evidence that any of this happened, especially in the 17th century The evidence we do have suggests that these stories originated in the mid-19th century at the earliest.
The true origin of the candy cane as we know it today is a little murky, but here is what we do know: the term “candy cane” first appears in print in 1866, and its first mention in connection with Christmas occurs in 1874 – well into the 19th century, a full 200 years after our apocryphal German choirmaster allegedly invented the candy cane.
We have documentation of sugar sticks with red stripes going back as far 1844, but the first visual record of the J-shaped candy cane we all recognize today did not appear until the early 20th century.
That said, there is one verifiable association between candy canes and religion, but it is not what you might expect. It turns out that the machine used for putting crooks into candy canes was invented by none other than a catholic priest.
Father Gregory Harding Keller was the brother-in-law of Bob McCormack, the owner of the company known today as Bob’s Candies. They started producing candy canes in 1919. McCormack’s factory in Albany, Georgia was already one of the world’s leading producers of candy canes, but the process required human factory workers to bend the crook in the newly-made, warm candy cane by hand. The Keller Machine reduced McCormack’s labor costs considerably. The fancy new machine was invented by, and named after, a priest, but that is the only known historical association between religion and candy canes.