The Food Lover's Christmas Tree

Tiny Facts: Why Do We Eat Candy Canes for Christmas?

published Dec 6, 2016
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(Image credit: Emma Christensen)

Even without trying, we somehow seem to rack up quite a stash of candy canes every year, and it got us thinking: How did they come to be such a thing, anyway?

We checked with holiday historians and candy makers, and found the backstory to be pretty hilarious: Candy canes were basically invented to get kids to shut up in church.

It Was Pure Bribery

Keeping children quiet during religious services is apparently a struggle that goes back for centuries. Legend has it, in 1670, a choir leader at Cologne Cathedral in Germany came up with the brilliant idea of bribing restless kids with candy to keep them occupied for the extra-long holiday mass, during which congregants acted out the Nativity scene, according to Stories Behind the Great Traditions of Christmas, by Ace Collins.

Hard candy was a luxury back then, and it lasted a while, of course, making it the perfect solution.

Colored candy didn’t exist at the time, Collins explains, so the choirmaster actually brought plain white candy sticks. To justify the bribe — and the idea of eating candy in church — the choirmaster asked the candy maker to add a little crook in the top of the sticks, to signify the staffs of the shepherds who came to visit Jesus upon his birth in the manger.

Brilliant, right? We like this guy’s parenting style.

Or a Secret Code

Of course, these ancient food-origin stories always seem to be disputed by other accounts. Another story about the roots of the candy cane goes back to a similar time period, but to Oliver Cromwell’s England, Collins says, where the Puritan leader banned Christmas celebrations for a short period.

A confectioner created candy canes so that Christians could carry them on the street, in a secret code to one another, as the legend goes.

Earning Their Stripes

Either way, candy canes eventually caught on in a big way. A German-Swedish immigrant in Ohio is credited with first decorating a tree with them in the 1840s.

It wasn’t until the 1920s that a candy maker in Georgia added the stripes, finding a way to hand-twist colors into the sweet treats, Collins says. From there, the practice caught on.

Today’s Trend

Until about 10 years ago, Spangler Candy Co. in Bryan, Ohio, still made the plain-white candy canes, Diana Moore Eschhofen, director of corporate communications for the company, tells us, adding that, yes, the company does tend to abide by the legend about the choir kids in Germany.

“Nowadays, there’s such a huge demand for all the colors and different flavors,” she says.

The company’s vast candy cane selection includes Jelly Belly, Dum Dum, and Smarties flavors, in addition to standbys like peppermint and cherry. There’s even Sriracha-flavored candy canes! If only those kids in the Middle Ages knew what they were missing out on!

Spangler is the only remaining major manufacturer of candy canes in the United States, though, so unless you can find a traditional plain one in a specialty shop, you probably won’t come across one that resembles the brainchild of that choir director from so long ago.

What to do with all those red-and-white striped candies? 12 Ways to Use Up Candy Canes