Candy cane history X

by Brian Clarey

You know ’em; you love ’em; you’ve got a bucket full of ’em and another couple dozen hanging from your tree. But what do you really know about the perennial holiday treat known as the “candy cane,” besides the fact that by New Year’s Day you’re sick of looking at them?

Believe it or not, the history of the candy cane is the subject of much debate and controversy by people with high-speed internet connections and way too much time on their hands.

One version of the story centers on a candy maker in Indiana who wanted to produce a holiday treat that allegorized the true meaning of Christmas: a white stick of candy symbolizing the virgin birth of Jesus and also his “sinlessness”; it’s hard composition as a metaphor for the foundation of the church; the red stripes representing the blood that Jesus shed on the cross; the shape reminiscent of a shepherd’s crook and also the letter “J”, Jesus’ monogram. Even the mint flavor is said to allude to the “cleansing” power of Christianity.

This story, of course, is pure crap for many reasons, not the least of which being that candy canes have been around since before there was an Indiana, which became the 19th state in 1816 whereas these minty treats first made their appearance in popular culture some time in the late 1600s.

That’s according to another version of the candy cane creation myth that harkens back to Germany ca. 1670 and a choirmaster at the Cologne Cathedral who during Christmastime altered the peppermint sticks he gave his young charges by bending them into the crook shape.

The legend comes back to American soil by 1870, when August Imgard of Wooster, Ohio is said to be the first person to decorate his Christmas tree with the candies.

But this has got to be bunk, too. I mean, the things are shaped like hooks. It’s inconceivable that it took 200 years for somebody to say, “Hey, I bet we could hang these things from our Christmas tree!”

Most confectionary scholars agree that the candy cane acquired its red stripes some time around the turn of the 20th century. And from here the history becomes a bit more documented.

Bob McCormack, a candy maker in Albany, Ga. was making small batches of candy canes by hand in the 1920s for family and friends. In the 1950s his brother-in-law Harding Keller – who was, in fact a Catholic priest – devised a machine to mass-produce the holiday treats. After the family tinkered with packaging techniques to keep the brittle things from breaking during shipping, the company, called Bob’s Candies, became the world’s leader in candy-cane production by 1956, at least according to the Albany Herald.

The canes were good to Bob and his family-run candy company and, according to their website, by the 1980 they were an acknowledged leader in the field. In 1986 they made the world’s largest candy cane – eight feet long and 100 pounds.

The record today is held by Paul Ghinelli who, in 1999, crafted a candy cane that was more than 58 feet in length.

Today candy canes come in a variety of flavors and colors (the blueberry ones smell like poison) and, according to the website, more than 1.73 billion are manufactured each year. The candy cane has its own holiday – Dec. 26 – and even has its own MySpace page.

Seriously, look it up.

And whether you bite them, lick them or suck them – or even stay away from them altogether – you know that this Christmas and every other they’ll make their appearance.

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