We Don’t Know the Origins of the Candy Cane, But They Almost Certainly Were Not Christian

There are a lot of explanations floating around out there about the candy cane—but almost none of them are true

There are a lot of explanations floating around out there about the candy cane. There’s the one about how the white represents Jesus and the red his blood and the cane is really a J (you know, for Jesus). There are a lot of versions of this story out there. Snopes has some of them, including the most common retelling:

A candymaker in Indiana wanted to make a candy that would be a witness, so he made the Christmas Candy Cane. He incorporated several symbols from the birth, ministry, and death of Jesus Christ.

He began with a stick of pure white, hard candy. White to symbolize the Virgin Birth and the sinless nature of Jesus, and hard to symbolize the Solid Rock, the foundation of the Church, and firmness of the promises of God.

The candymaker made the candy in the form of a “J” to represent the precious name of Jesus, who came to earth as our Savior. It could also represent the staff of the “Good Shepherd” with which He reaches down into the ditches of the world to lift out the fallen lambs who, like all sheep, have gone astray.

Thinking that the candy was somewhat plain, the candymaker stained it with red stripes. He used three small stripes to show the stripes of the scourging Jesus received by which we are healed. The large red stripe was for the blood shed by Christ on the cross so that we could have the promise of eternal life.

These Jesus celebrating candies were then, the story goes, handed out to good children in church or used as a form of identification among Christians when they were persecuted. None of this is true. First, candy canes were certainly not invented in Indiana, since the first reports of hard candy sticks (the precursor to candy canes) come from the 17th century, long before Indiana was even a glimmer in some secessionist’s eye.

And it turns out that white candy sticks were actually quite common at Christmas. One story says that they turned into J’s because one choirmaster bent them to look like a shepherd’s staff for children during the nativity scene. There’s no evidence that that’s true either, of course. Today I Found Out writes, ” Given that it has been a time-honored church tradition to try to associate as many Christmas season traditions’ ‘origin stories’ as possible with Christianity, usually just for symbolism’s sake but often getting morphed into being believed as fact, color me skeptical on this one.”

America’s introduction to Christmas candy canes is often traced to August Imgard, a German immigrant who’s credited with introducing the Christmas tree to Ohio in 1847. The National Confectioners Association, for instance, says that Imgard “decorated a small blue spruce with paper ornaments and candy canes.” But a 1938 article on a ceremony that honored Imgard’s contribution and included three generations of his family mentions a different kind of sweet:

Ornaments were made of paper, festooned in long chains by the younger members of the pioneer community. Kuchen baked according to a recipe sent from Bavaria by Imgard’s mother hung upon the tree and served both as ornaments and tidbits. The cookies were colored with brown sugar, and the family spent weeks baking them in quantities for the guests. Gilded nuts were other ornaments and inside the gilded shells were warm messages of greeting.

Red-and-white-striped candy didn’t start showing up until around the turn of the century. But there is one thing that Christians can claim as their own, when it comes to the candy cane. It’s not the shape, or the stripes, but the machine that actually makes them into J’s. Here’s Today I Found Out again:

Father Keller was the brother-in-law of the aforementioned Bob McCormack.  McCormack was having trouble at the time because about 22% of the candy canes produced by Bob and his crew were ending up in the trash, because they broke during the bending process. Keller’s machine automated this process and shortly thereafter was perfected by Dick Driskell and Jimmy Spratling, both of which worked for Bob McCormack. This made it so the candy canes came out perfect nearly every time.

So while it’s unlikely Christians invented the candy cane, they might have perfected it.

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