Sunday, December 13, 2009

Apple #426: Candy Canes

Continuing with my Christmas-themed topics, I was thinking the other day about candy canes. They are everywhere. They're so pervasive that I don't think I even like them anymore.

But I had the feeling that once upon a time, there were no candy canes. Where did they come from? How did they get to be so common?

Candy canes are everywhere
(Photo from the Candy Snob)


All the sources I found on this tell the same story, almost exactly word for word. I'm at least going to paraphrase to try to make it interesting.

  • Long ago -- I'm talking 1600s -- people used to decorate their Christmas trees with everyday, homemade stuff. Actual candles. Cookies. Candy.
  • One of the things people made at Christmas time were straight, white sticks of sugar candy. Now, most relate this fact in connection with Christmas-tree decoration, but I fail to see how the straight sticks of candy could be hung on the tree. Maybe they were propped up there? Or maybe it was candy that people made along with the other types of candy that they did put on the tree.
  • Then, sometime in the 1670s, a choirmaster in Cologne, Germany got an idea. In anticipation of the very long Christmas mass, he made those straight candy sticks, but he bent them into the shape of shepherd's crook, and then he passed them out to the children who came to Christmas mass and were sitting around the creche. He wanted to keep them entertained and quiet and sitting still throughout the mass.

One example of a creche (pronounced kresh). In living creches, actual people -- often children -- act out the parts of Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, etc.
(Photo from Franciscan Friars)

  • This isn't in other people's histories of the candy cane, but I'm going to bet that that choirmaster didn't have much experience with children. I mean, giving children a bunch of sugar to get them to sit still? Great idea.
  • But the larger point here, for our purposes, is that he meant the candy cane to resemble a shepherd's crook. Since the children were described as sitting around a creche, I'm thinking he meant the candy canes to evoke the shepherds who saw the star and followed it to the manger.
  • In 1847, a German guy named August Imgard who had emigrated to Wooster, Ohio, decorated his Christmas tree with the white, bent candy canes in order to entertain his nieces and nephews. People who visited his house liked his candy canes much, when they went home, they made their own, experimenting with recipes.

The shepherd's crook shape makes it even easier to hang candy canes on the Christmas tree.
(Photo from Rafter Tales)

  • For another 60 years, the candy canes were still all white -- until about 1900. Christmas cards until about that time depict candy canes that are bent and white, but they are not striped.
  • Christmas cards sent after 1900 depicted candy canes that were red and white striped. Also about the time the stripes showed up, candy makers began adding flavorings like peppermint and wintergreen.
  • Nobody knows for sure who made the first striped candy canes, or why they chose red and white. Perhaps it was some industrious and creative housewife who first came up with the idea and other people followed suit?
  • Or perhaps it was some guy named Bob McCormack, who lived in Albany, Georgia. In 1920 he mass-produced a bunch of candy canes, wrapped them in cellophane, and handed them out to friends and relatives all over the place. (But since he made them by hand, I'm wondering if he had some servants or somebody helping him.) He liked making the candy canes so much and was so good at it, he made a business out of it -- Bob's Candies, which are still made today.
  • In the 1950s, Bob's brother-in-law, a Catholic priest named Gregory Keller, made a machine to automate the production of candy canes. I think it was this invention that contributed to the candy's pervasiveness.

Bob and Gregory also used patented boxes like these that keep the candy canes from breaking.
(Photo from Treasure Island Sweets)


While that story about the choirmaster in 1670 is told over and over and over again, at the same time, people seem to forget about the shepherd's crook, and they advance countless other theories about what the candy cane represents.

The candy cane: sweet, sugary treat, or secret religious symbol?
Short answer: it's candy
(Photo from Weeping Cherries)

Here are only a few of the symbologies that people have suggested:
  • The cane shape is actually the shape of a "J" and stands for "Jesus"
  • The white represents the purity of Mary, or the virgin birth of Jesus
  • The white and the peppermint hearken back to hyssop, which was an herb used in the Old Testament and which symbolized purity
  • The red represents the blood of Jesus that would be spilled during his crucifixion
  • The stripes represent the stripes Jesus would receive when he was scourged
  • The three stripes -- where people get three, I'm not sure, unless they're looking at those types of candy canes that also have a tiny green stripe -- represent the Holy Trinity
  • The hardness of the candy represents the "rock" that is the church.
  • Candy canes were a way that oppressed Christians in the early church used to communicate with each other. (This is historically impossible.)

You can believe any or all of that if you want to. But really it's all bunk. It's candy in the shape of a shepherd's crook.


Until Gregory Keller made his machine, everybody made their candy canes by hand. Now, candy canes are produced in huge batches by a process that I find rather interesting.

  • It all starts with sugar. Refined sugar, corn syrup, glucose, and sometimes molasses are the primary ingredients in candy canes.
  • The sugar is pumped into the kitchen from storage tanks. (I include this bit of information because there used to be a Wonder Bread factory where I live and I maintained that the trucks that pulled up to it and attached a hose to the side of the building were pumping in the dough. I was scoffed at for this assertion, but I really think that's what was happening. If they pump in the sugar for candy canes, why can't they pump in the ingredients for bread?)
  • Salt is added, too. There's not enough that you can taste it, but as most cooks know, a little salt helps balance out sweet things.
  • There's also some water in there, too.
  • All this stuff is stirred together in a great big kettle, which is heated to 300°F and then kept hot so that the syrup will melt and boil.
  • Giant, automatic paddles stir the hot syrup and help it to thicken.
  • Once it's the right, amber color and it has thickened enough, while the syrup is still hot, workers pour the syrup across tables. The tables have been cooled with water, which helps the syrup cool a little faster.
  • The cooling syrup is then sent into the kneaders and pullers. The machines have arms that knead and stretch the candy, similar to the way taffy is stretched, until it turns a silky white color.
  • During the stretching process, workers add flavoring. Usually those flavorings are the traditional peppermint oil or wintergreen oil. Sometimes colorings are added, but only to color the white portion. The colors for the red or green or other stripes are added later.
  • Once the syrup has been colored and flavored and stretched enough, another worker cuts the giant cooling blob of syrup into big hunks of about 95 to 100 pounds each. The worker then shapes the 95-pound hunk of sugar into a loaf shape about 1 foot by 2 foot.
  • Depending on the plant, workers may slice off pieces from a loaf and set it aside, or they may make smaller stripes separately from the loaf. In either case, these smaller pieces are dyed the color of the stripes -- in most cases, red.
  • The colored stripes are then pressed in intervals on top of the big loaf.

Workers at the Spangler candy plant handling one of the giant loaves of candy that has had its color stripes added.
(Photo from Spangler candy)

  • The striped loaf is then put into another machine, either a batch roller or an extruder. This machine keeps the loaf hot enough that it can be shaped, and it stretches and rolls the loaf into one long strand that is the width of a candy cane.
  • The long strand is then twisted so that the stripes don't just go up and down but twist around the cane.
  • Immediately following the twister is the cutter, which slices the long, now-twisted strand into candy-cane lengths.
  • The twisty-striped but stick-straight candy pieces then go into the wrapping machine, which encloses the candy in shrink wrap. Because the candy is still warm, the shrink wrap sticks to the cane and is sealed.
  • The wrapped candy now goes into the crooker, which bends the still-warm candies into their distinctive shape.
  • The candies are then finally cooled and boxed and, after inspection, shipped out.

Some of the extruders that stretch the big loaf into a long skinny strand can manipulate more than 2,000 pounds of candy per hour. That's how easy it is to make a lot of candy canes pretty fast.

Making this many candy canes, with today's machinery, is cake.
(Photo from Lollipops & Candies, Inc.)

Mary Bellis,, History of Candy Canes
Laura Witcher Goldstein, The History of the Candy Cane
Snopes, Candy Cane
Phantom Fireworks, History of Candy Canes
essortment, History of the candy cane
Old Time Candy, Bob's Candy
Spangler Candy, Candy Cane Tour
How Products Are Made, Candy Cane


  1. I've thought about this post every time I've eaten a candy cane after reading. They ARE cheap and plentiful, and now I know why.

  2. Maybe this entry should come with that recommendation: eat after reading.

  3. I figured you had to have a post on Candy canes, I love reading your random knowledge pages, my favorite kind of knowledge! You sincerely brighten up my week when I stop to read a post or two, thanks for your hard work!

  4. Thank you, Shanna! I'm glad you're enjoying the posts. If you ever have a question, drop me a line in the comments, and I'll look into it for you.


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