Food history: candy canes

Not much is known about the history of candy canes – at least, not much that is backed up by reliable historical records. But we’ll go over what we do know.

the top part of a candy cane against a black background

There are several legends claiming a Christian connotation to candy canes.

One such story maintains that Christians used candy canes as a secret symbol to identify one another during a time of religious persecution, but does a good job of debunking that myth. 

Other Christian associations that cannot be proven:

  • A choirmaster bent the sugar cane into a “J” to represent a shepherd’s staff.
  • Others say the “J” is for “Jesus.”
  • The red and white stripes represent Jesus’s blood and purity.
  • The three red stripes symbolize the Holy Trinity.
  • Candy canes were given out to children at church to keep them quiet during Christmas mass.

Again, the above claims are nice stories, but they may or may not be true.

What we do know about candy canes for sure:

  • Hard sugar sticks can be traced back to the 1600s.
  • We can’t be certain who actually bent the stick into its “J” shape.
  • Starting in the mid 1800s, candy canes were used to decorate Christmas trees along with Christmas cookies.
  • Candy canes were all white until about the year 1900.
  • Peppermint as well as wintergreen were the original flavors.

During the 1920s, a candy maker named Bob McCormack took the candy cane market by storm, producing thousands of candy canes in his factory in Albany, Georgia. Before long, Bob’s Candies became the number one candy maker in the world.

However, there was a 20 percent breakage rate with workers having to bend the candy cane into its signature shape by hand.

Bob McMcCormack’s brother-in-law, Gregory Harding Keller, took the liberty of inventing the “Keller Machine” which successfully shaped the candy canes.

Production increased from thousands to millions of candy canes coming out of the factory every single day.

And guess what? Keller was a Catholic priest.

As puts it, while it is “unlikely Christians invented the candy cane” we can say confidentially that a Christian man perfected it.

Although today is Christmas – Merry Christmas! – National Candy Cane Day is actually tomorrow, the 26th.