Can a piece of candy tell a story? Though some believe and some do not, the history of the candy cane is rich with the symbolism of Jesus Christ’s birth, ministry, and death. This tasty Christmas treat also points to our redemption in Christ, the cleansing of our sins, and the healing He provided for us.
Legend places the candy cane’s origin at Christmastide 1670 in Germany’s magnificent Cologne Cathedral. The choirmaster pondered how to keep his choir boys quiet during the long Living Creche service on Christmas Eve. He asked a local candy maker to form “sugar sticks” for the children.
To justify giving the boys candy in church, the choirmaster instructed the confectioner to put a crook at the top of each stick. The sweet shepherd’s staff would remind the children of the shepherds who visited the baby Jesus. At this time, the candy canes were pure white. The minister used the white color of the candies to teach the choir boys about the pure, sinless life of Jesus.
The custom of clergymen handing out candy canes during Christmas services eventually spread throughout Europe and later to America. Historical references to the “candy cane” appeared in American magazines in the mid-1800s, followed by the custom of hanging candy canes on the Christmas tree.
In the early 1900s, the white candy cane gained its red stripes. A Midwestern candy maker decided to make a Christmas candy for children that would remind them of Christ’s birth, ministry and death. He began with the white sugar cane, symbolizing the purity of Jesus, His sinless life, and His perfect sacrifice as the Lamb of God.
The hardness of the candy pointed to Christ, the Solid Rock and foundation of the Church. The staff shape would remind children not only of the shepherds at Jesus’s birth but also of the Good Shepherd Himself. When turned upside down, the cane formed a “J” for Jesus.
A large red stripe would represent the blood Jesus shed for us on the cross. His perfect sacrifice paid for our sins so we could receive cleansing and forgiveness of sins. 1 John 1:7 declares, “And the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin.”
Three small red stripes were added to the candy cane to represent the scourging of Jesus by the Roman soldiers. We can find the candy maker’s inspiration in Isaiah 53:5 and 1 Peter 2:24, “By his stripes we are healed.”
As Christians, we readily believe the spiritual reality that our sins are forgiven through the blood of Jesus. However, when experiencing the physical pain of sickness, it can be difficult to believe that Jesus healed us by his wounds long ago. Those three little red stripes on the candy cane can remind us that Jesus endured horrendous suffering for our healing. As the Lord promises in Psalms 103:3, He “forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases.”
The candy maker added peppermint flavor to the candy cane, similar to hyssop in the Bible, which is from the mint family. Hyssop has cleansing and medicinal properties, yet another reminder of how Jesus cleanses our sins and heals us.
Making candy canes was always a laborious process. The pulling, twisting, cutting and bending were done by hand, limiting the distribution of the Christmas candy to local areas.
In 1919, Bob McCormack began making candy canes for local children in Albany, Georgia. The canes had to be bent manually for the “crook” as they came off the assembly line, and breakage often ran over 20 percent.
McCormack’s brother-in-law, Gregory Harding Keller, was a seminary student in Rome and spent his summers working in the candy factory back home. Keller invented a machine to automate the process of twisting soft candy into spiral striping and cutting it into precise lengths as candy canes. As an ordained Roman Catholic priest in 1957, he patented the Keller Machine.
By mid-century, McCormack’s company, Bobs Candies, was ranked as the largest candy cane maker in the world. By 2001, the company was producing 500 million candy canes per year at its Georgia facility. In 2005, Farley’s and Sathers Candy Company acquired Bobs Candies and still makes candy canes today. Although candy canes now come in many colors and flavors, the traditional peppermint Christmas treat with the “crook” remains the most popular.
A delightful way to share the true meaning of Christmas is to attach the Candy Cane Poem to a candy cane as a gift for others. Free printable versions of the poem can be found online by searching for “candy cane poem.”
This article appeared in the Fall 2023 issue of GO! Christian Magazine.