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The origin of the candy cane is shrouded in festive lore, yet its evolution is a sweet testament to holiday traditions. According to the National Confectioners Association, the candy cane began as a simple white sugar stick in the 17th century, initially serving as a Christmas tree ornament. It wasn't until the early 1900s that the recognizable red stripes and iconic hook were added, transforming it into the Christmas staple we know today. As reported by Smithsonian Magazine, the addition of peppermint flavoring further solidified the candy cane's status as a seasonal favorite. This confection's journey from plain sugar stick to striped treat encapsulates the spirit of innovation within the history of holiday sweets.
A popular legend holds that a candy maker created the candy cane to resemble a "J" for Jesus, or a shepherd's crook when held the other way. The white candy is said to symbolize Jesus' purity, or the virgin birth. The three small red stripes are a reminder of the scourging that Christ received before His crucifixion, and the large single stripe is a symbol of the blood He shed. The peppermint flavor is similar to that of an herb called hyssop, featured in purification rites described in the Old Testament.
While the candy cane holds these connotations for many Christians, they were not the original inspiration for the holiday treat. It was initially a simple decoration for Christmas trees. In 1670, the choirmaster of Cologne Cathedral had the idea of bending the candy into the shape of shepherd's crooks in order to add a religious connotation and handed the treats out to children during Mass. For nearly 200 years, the candy cane was white and flavored only with sugar.
The candy cane remained pure white until the 1920s, when confectioner Bob McCormick of Albany, Georgia added the well-known red stripes. Red-striped peppermint candy first appeared in the mid-19th century in the Swedish town of Granna, and McCormick may have been inspired by these treats. The red and white candy canes were hand-twisted at first, and the process was mechanized in the 1950s.