History Stories

One theory claims the iconic holiday candy was created in Germany to appease fidgety choirboys.

If anyone had cause to wonder about the allure of the candy cane, look no further than the words of Will Ferrell’s Buddy the Elf: “We elves try to stick to the four main food groups: candy, candy canes, candy corns and syrup.”

In fact, according to the National Confectioners Association, alwaysatreat.com, candy canes are the No. 1-selling non-chocolate candy during the month of December, with 90 percent of the red and white striped treats sold between Thanksgiving and Christmas. The biggest single week for candy canes? The second week of December. “Likely because most people decorate their Christmas trees that week,” says Carly Schildhaus, public affairs manager for the NCA.

But just when and how candy canes got their start is a bit more uncertain than their popularity (1.76 billion candy canes are produced in the United States annually).

Candy Cane Invented to Quiet Choirboys?

“Legend has it that the candy cane dates back to 1670, when the choirmaster at the Cologne Cathedral in Germany handed out sugar sticks among his young singers to keep them quiet during the Living Creche ceremony,” Schildhaus says. “In honor of the occasion, he bent the candies into shepherds’ crooks.”

Susan Benjamin, founder of True Treats Historic Candy, truetreatscandy.com, and author of Sweet as Sin: The Unwrapped Story of How Candy Became America’s Pleasure, agrees the candy cane most likely took shape in 17th century Europe when pulled sugars, the parent to today’s sugar sticks, were all the rage. It was at that time, somewhere in Germany, that a hook was added to the stick, she says.

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Benjamin also cites the theory that a German choirmaster gave candy sticks to still his fidgety choirboys during services. (It was a gentler form of enticement than “whacking them with a switch,” she says.)

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“The board complained—sweets were not appropriate at so solemn a place as church,” Benjamin explains. “So, the choirmaster added a hook, making the stick resemble a staff, a religious reference that would calm the board’s concerns.”

She says the story has some credibility, but “it’s just as likely Germans added the hook to hang them from trees, alongside cookies, fruits and other treats.”

Candy Canes Were Once Only White

Most, however, agree the white candy cane made its U.S. debut in 1847 in Wooster Ohio, according to Schildhaus, when August Imgard, a German-Swedish immigrant, decorated a small blue spruce with paper ornaments and candy canes.

Or course, today, there’s nothing more iconic when it comes to candy than the alternating red and white stripes of the candy cane, but, according to Schildhaus, for 200 years, before mass-production was automated, they came in just one color: white.

READ MORE: The History of Christmas Trees

A 1920s Christmas card featuring Santa Claus and a reindeer licking a candy cane.

A 1920s Christmas card featuring Santa Claus and a reindeer licking a candy cane.

“At the turn of the 20th century, the red stripes—and peppermint flavor—emerged as the most popular choice,” she says.

Benjamin attributes the red and white stripes to good marketing.

Theories About Candy Cane Stripes and Colors

“With the stripe came legends of stories about the candy cane, such as it being a secret code among persecuted Christians in Germany or England in the 17th century; a secret language amongst the Christian faithful depending on the stripe—three represented the trinity, one Jesus’ sacrifice),” she says, adding, “and the more general role of the stripe as the blood of Jesus.”

True? “I’m not sure,” Benjamin says. Still other theories contend the candy cane’s “J” shape is an homage to Jesus, but Benjamin says that’s an urban legend.

As for the best way to eat the Yuletide treat: Schildhaus says an NCA survey found that 72 percent of people think that starting on the straight end is the "proper" way to eat a candy cane, while 28 percent start at the curved end.

READ MORE: Christmas Traditions Worldwide

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