Full disclosure: Nobody really knows the “exact” origin of the candy cane. But several tales and confirmed historical facts help paint a minty picture.
Candy canes are one of the most beloved sweet treats at Christmastime. And, of course, candy canes are also go-to Christmas stocking stuffers and Christmas tree decorations.
But how exactly did candy canes become a Christmas tradition? Who invented candy canes? What do candy canes symbolize? Are candy canes have a religious history?
As it turns out, the history of candy canes and their symbolism is a bit murky, to say the least.
Separating Candy Cane Fact From Folklore
Many Christmas traditions have storied histories. For example, when it comes to the origins of Christmas stockings, the most popular story is rooted in St. Nicholas leaving gold in the socks of a widower’s three daughters.
When it comes to candy canes, there are also many tales, but little documented evidence. Smithonsian.com says, “There are a lot of explanations floating around out there about the candy cane—but almost none of them are true.” And as Time Magazine puts it, “The history of the candy cane is mired in folklore.”
Of course, with Christmas being a celebration rooted in Christian tradition to honor the first coming of Jesus Christ, many of the stories have religious roots.
What are those stories? Let’s explore the three most common.
The German Choirmaster
As the story goes, “church history” states that back 1670 the choirmaster Germany’s Cologne Cathedral was facing an all-to common problem: keeping children still, quiet, and engaged during long Christmas services.
In search of a solution, he visited a local candymaker, and as legend tells it, the choirmaster paused when he saw white “sugar sticks.” Thinking these sugar sticks could do just the trick, but worrying giving children sugar during worship may be frowned upon, he allegedly asked the candymaker if he could bend the top to make the sticks look more like a shepherd's cane.
This way, the children could remember the shepherd’s that visited the infant Jesus—and the white color could be used to teach children about living a sinless life.
However, according to Snopes, no one has been able to produce documentation that either confirms the account or reliably dates it to the 17th century. Moreover, the first written references of candy canes at Christmas didn’t pop up until 1874, which is 200 years after it was reportedly invented and popularized, the fact checking organization says.
The Indiana Candymaker
The Indiana-based candymaker story competes most directly with the German choirmaster account. In this origin story, which reportedly takes on the same timeline as the choirmaster tale, it’s said that the Indiana confectioner wanted to make a candy that could be a “witness,” incorporating multiple symbols from the birth, ministry, and death of Jesus.
Legend says the shape of the cane—a “J”— pays homage to His name, as well as the shepherd’s stick. The white would represent purity and the sinless nature of Jesus. Finally, thinking the candy was far too plain, the candymaker stained it red to symbolize the blood Jesus shed on the cross.
Once again, this story has a few problematic historical references, according to Snopes, with the biggest error in the locale of the supposed invention. Indiana didn’t exist in the 17th century, and it’s hard to fathom that history would neglect to record this inventor’s name.
This story speaks more to why candy canes may have become part of Christmas tradition, but not too much detail as to who created them or exactly when.
In this story, candy canes became part of Christmas tradition in the United States in 1847 when German immigrant August Imgard, who’s said to be the one who introduced Christmas trees in Ohio, decorated his tree with candy canes.
While most don’t dispute his claim to Christmas tree fame, there’s contradicting evidence on whether candy canes were used as ornaments.
The Undisputed Piece of Candy Cane History
While we may not know when, how, or who invented candy canes, what we do know is that the Keller Machine, invented in the mid-1950s, changed candy cane production for the better.
Candymaker Bob McCormack was reportedly having trouble consistently creating hooked candy canes; many were ending up in the trash. That’s until Father Gregory Keller, a Catholic priest and the brother-in-law of the candymaker, invented a machine that automated the process.
Soon after, the machine was reportedly perfected by two of McCormack’s employees, helping the candies come out perfect nearly every time.
As they say, the rest is history. Regardless of how candy canes came to be part of the Christmas celebration, they’re here and here to stay. So, when it comes time to decorate the tree or stuff your Christmas stockings, add candy canes with cheer.