It’s pure white and bright red, with a minty flavor and a crooked hook.
The candy cane is a holiday treat with a bold identity, and an even bolder flavor.
But how did it get to be such a popular holiday item? How did it get its bent shape, and signature colors? And why is it flavored with peppermint?
Much like the candy cane itself, the tale of its origin is a little crooked.
Though we may never be able to pinpoint exactly when or how it was originally created, we can at least analyze some of the more popular origin stories and how they may (or, rather, may not) line up with the historical facts we do know.
’Tis the season for holiday research!
A Medicinal Foundation
As for the classic peppermint flavor, however, there is far more to explore.
The combination of peppermint and sugar may have been popularized in the past due to the underlying medicinal characteristics of both.
In The Oxford Companion to Food, author Alan Davidson recognizes that sugar, being a rare and costly commodity when it was first introduced to Europe, was valued “mainly for its supposed medical qualities and finding its place in the pharmacopeia of the medieval apothecary.”
As it became more accessible during the Middle Ages, Britain used sugar as a means to remedy colds. Sugar was consumed in different forms, such as crystals or twisted into sticks, called penida in Latin, which may have been the original versions of our modern-day canes twisted with mint essences.
Though sugar isn’t valued as a beacon of health today, apothecaries in Europe, as well as those in America, relied upon it heavily throughout pharmaceutical history.
And for a very important reason:
As explained by Darcy O’Neil in her book Fix the Pumps, available on Amazon, pharmacists and drugstore or apothecary owners recognized the lucrative value of combining sweet ingredients with unpalatable drugs that were often used in medicines.
For liquid consumption, they would combine soda water sweetened with sugar as a means of concealing the bitterness of the other medicinal ingredients.
“A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down,” as Mary Poppins would sing…
The same may be argued for mint essences. Wintergreen and peppermint were believed to be an effective remedy against colds, widely prevalent during the chilly winter months.
With their powerfully minty sensations, they may have been too overwhelming to consume on their own. Sugar would have helped to offset the dominant qualities, creating an enjoyable experience while maintaining its medicinal purpose of fighting colds.
The Popularity of Mint Flavor in America
Mint as a common medicinal ingredient is surely a viable explanation for the prevalence of peppermint candies, particularly during the winter holidays.
In addition to being a common cold buster, peppermint was simply a popular flavor, particularly in America since the late 1800s.
“Rigby’s Reliable Candy Teacher,” a confectionary guidebook from the early 1900s written by Will O. Rigby, details the process of making a candy cane. While they can be made in any flavor, color, or size, Rigby points out that peppermint and lemon are the best-selling flavors.
Americans not only enjoyed the taste of peppermint, but the country was also a strong leader in mint production. While most mint agriculture now resides in the Pacific Northwest, Michigan was a clear leader throughout the early 20th century.
According to Shandra Martinez of mlive, mint reached a boom in America at the turn of the 20th century. Michigan was the global frontrunner in cultivating mint, and farmers there were responsible for growing 90% of the world’s supply.
The boom was mainly due to Albert M. Todd’s Michigan mint business, which was later recognized as the leading producer of extracted and distilled peppermint and spearmint flavoring. Founded in 1869, Todd’s mint plantations were the largest in the world, until a mint blight in 1924 ended their agricultural reign.
Now that we understand the ingredients, let’s move on to learning more about its shape and colors throughout history.
Multiple tales, stories, and legends have labeled the hook and the red-and-white appearance of the candy cane as a Christian invention.
It is certain that today’s candy canes are derived from straight sticks with a natural white color, as were depicted in Christmas artwork until the early 1900’s. Striped candy canes began appearing in paintings and drawings after this period.
One common story tells the tale of a German choirmaster in the 1670s bending the sticks into “shepherd’s staffs,” as a symbol of Jesus the Good Shepherd. These were given to children to keep them quiet during long nativity scene services.
But unless this choirmaster was formulating and engaging in the laborious process of making the canes himself from scratch (which I’m sure such a busy musician and lead master of a choir would not have the time, nor the means to partake in), there could be no possible way that he would be able to bend hard, brittle sugar sticks that had already been made without breaking them.
So who made them to these specifications?
Another popular legend, in which an Indiana citizen creates the candy cane, relies upon a more visually elaborate approach:
The treat is often described as a visual reference to a variety of Christian ideals. The cane was shaped like a “J” for Jesus. The red symbolizes Christ’s blood (similar to the red berries on a sprig of holly used to decorate the top of a figgy pudding), and the white symbolizes his purity, and that of the virgin mother’s. The hardness represents the Church’s foundation on solid rock, and the three red stripes stand for the Holy Trinity.
While these representations are certainly an entertaining and meaningful approach to teach young children about religious traditions of the Christmas holiday, there is not enough historic, or even logical, proof to support these tales.
Rose Eveleth of the Smithsonian argues that the origins of this crunchy sweet were almost certainly not Christian, writing that they could not have been invented in Indiana, since the first records of hard candy sticks come from the 17th century, “long before Indiana was even a glimmer in some secessionist’s eye.”
The plain sugary stick may have gotten an aesthetic update for purely practical reasons.
The hook may have been created simply so the candies could be easier to hang on a Christmas tree, among other decorative foodstuffs like fruit, popcorn, and other types of holiday candies.
As for the colors, these may have led to capital gains amongst competing candymakers.
Much like combining sugar with mint to increase the likability of medicinal products, adding fun, bright colors could also have increased the product’s marketability and visual appeal to potential buyers.
But why red? Shouldn’t it have been green, since this is the natural color of the mint from which its flavor is derived?
But that just makes too much sense…
Other than for its religious significance as described above, reasons are lacking to explain why the color red was chosen. My thoughts return to the product’s visual marketability. Red provides a beautiful contrast to the natural white of the candy, and would have made quite an eye-catching display not only on its own in store windows, but also against the backdrop of an evergreen.
But we may have gone a little color-crazy in recent decades.
Colors that are available now in modern candies hold little meaning, other than providing a bountiful selection to match seasonal décor, and determining what the potential flavors may be.
Pinks, blues, greens, yellows, purples… The ROYGBIV rainbow represented in the candy cane world has never been more colorful. And neither have the flavor options, with everything from blue raspberry to bacon gracing store shelves.
American Mass Production
There is no doubt that Americans love candy. And industry. Combine the two, and you get mass-produced candy canes.
An article on CBS News details how candymaker Bob McCormack cornered this market in the 1920s by producing thousands of handmade hooked treats in his Georgia factory, becoming the leading candy cane producer by volume in the world.
While the origins of this sweet are a little blurry, we do know that the automatic candy cane machine was invented in the mid-20th century.
The cane had to be bent manually when it was still warm and soft after coming off the assembly line, usually using a wooden mold. According to CBS, Bob’s Candies suffered a high breakage rate, which led to a serious loss of product.
Bob’s brother-in-law, a Catholic priest by the name of Gregory Harding Keller, had a solution to increase efficiency. He invented a machine, later known as the Keller Machine, which was able to take in hot, malleable sticks and bend them without a high risk of breakage.
Keller’s patent describes its purpose: “to provide a machine which is capable of receiving straight sticks of candy while in a semi-plastic state and, as the sticks are being transported through the machine, bending the ends of the sticks into crooks to form so-called candy canes.”
This was a serious development for candymaking, as it was now possible to automate the whole process rather than wasting labor on the time-consuming method of forming them by hand. Candymakers could now mass-produce their minty candies without as much risk of damage.
Product loss decreased, manufacturing increased, and sales roared!
Candy Canes of the 21st Century
While we may not know all the details of the origin of the candy cane, we are definitely aware of its continual popularity. Walk down the aisles of any grocery store during the holiday season and you are bound to find walls of assorted candy cane products, in all flavors and colors.
But you and I both know that the one with the red and white stripes, the peppermint flavor, and that perfectly round hook is the best of all. It is the minty-sweet stuff of legend.
A wintry giant amongst men.
Do you know of any theories about how this minty wonder was invented? Tell us a tale below in the comments, and be sure to let us know what your own personal favorite flavor is!
And if you are especially a huge lover of holiday-themed treats, try our peppermint marshmallows, and make sure to check out our 23 holiday candy recipes – many of them candy cane-inspired!
Photo credits: Shutterstock, Oxford University Press, and Accoutrements. Significantly revised and expanded from a post originally written by Allison Sidhu.
About Nikki Cervone
Nikki Cervone is a full-time cheesemonger and specialty foods buyer living in Pittsburgh. Nikki holds an AAS in baking/pastry from Westmoreland County Community College, a BA in Communications from Duquesne University, and an MLA in Gastronomy from Boston University. When she's not nibbling on her favorite cheeses or testing a batch of cupcakes, Nikki enjoys a healthy dose of yoga, wine, hiking, singing in the shower, and chocolate. Lots of chocolate.