Candy canes are to Christmas what jack-o'-lanterns are to Halloween: a festive symbol of the holiday. But whether you use the tasty treats to decorate your tree or to threaten the enamel on your teeth, do you really know that much about these stripey, sugary concoctions? Here's a look at some candy cane trivia to sweeten up your celebrations.
1. The holy history
If you (or your kid) has ever been to Sunday school, you've likely heard a Christian tale of the candy cane's origins. There are various versions, and Snopes has several, but most revolve around the white representing Jesus' purity, the red standing for his blood, and the shape representing the "J" of his monogram. The candies were given to children who behaved in church or maybe dreamed up by an Indiana candymaker as a sweet expression of his faith.
Unfortunately, the party poopers at Snopes say there's no real evidence to back up any of these religious origin stories.
2. They used to be straight
White, hard sugar sticks were a popular candy for centuries, according to Today I Found Out. But how did they get bent at the end and earn their stripes? There isn't a lot of evidence from reputable sources to back up any significant history. But again, religion comes into play. The National Confectioners Association mentions a much-repeated legend that in about 1670, a choirmaster at Cologne Cathedral in Germany passed out sugar sticks to his children's choir to keep them occupied during a long nativity ceremony. To imbue a little holiness into the situation, (and so the priests would approve of candy in church) he had the candies bent into the shape of a shepherd's crook.
A little boy looks at candy canes in this greeting card, likely from the early 1900s. (Photo: Sunshine Pub. Co. Philadelphia/Wikipedia)
3. Showing stripes
Again, no one is totally sure when or why the classic red stripes started showing up in candy canes. Christmas cards from the late 19th century show all-white candy canes. But the red-striped candy canes started appearing in holiday cards right around the turn of the century, mentions Today I Found Out.
That's about the time Albany, Georgia, candy maker Bob McCormack was making the sweets for his family and friends and many credit him for adding the colorful stripe.
Also, because candy canes were used as often for decor as they were for candy, it makes sense that someone would think to add a little color.
4. A priest helps with automation
Just when we debunk the religious nature of the candy cane, it turns out there is one rather tenuous religious connection. Aforementioned candy maker McCormack made a limited number of candy canes in the early 1900s. But because the candies had to be formed by hand and were easily broken, he could only make enough for a local market. Enter his brother-in-law, a Catholic priest named Fr. Gregory Keller, who invented a machine to automate candy cane production. Soon business was booming and by the end of the 1950s, Bobs Candies was producing 1.8 million sticks of candy each day.
5. How they're made
Candy canes are made from a few simple ingredients: sugar, corn syrup and flavoring. The candy dough is kneaded and stretched like taffy. It's rolled into a log, stripes are added as its rolled and twisted some more, gradually becoming smaller and smaller until it's only three-eights of an inch. Then the canes are wrapped, bent (yes, bent after they're wrapped) and boxed.
Here's a video of the whole process at the Spangler factory:
6. By the numbers
Each year about 1.2 billion candy canes are made, according to the National Confectioners Association, but good luck trying to find a candy cane in March. Because they're a seasonal item, about 90 percent of all candy canes are sold between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Ironically, National Candy Cane Day is observed in the U.S. on Dec. 26.
7. Not just peppermint
Traditionally, the flavor for candy canes has been peppermint, but candy manufacturers have experimented with some interesting flavors. You can find them in strawberry, chocolate and cinnamon, which don't seem too out there. But candy canes also come in pickle, sriracha, bacon, gravy, wasabi and other crazy flavors. (Kind of ruins the holiday spirit, doesn't it?)
8. Nutrition summary
The good news? There's no fat or cholesterol in a candy cane. The bad news? There's still about 60 calories and 14 grams of sugar. That means you'll have to walk for 16 minutes or bike for 8 minutes to burn off one of those sweet treats.
9. Breaking the record
According to the folks at Guinness, the world's largest candy cane was 51 feet long. It was created by Geneva, Illinois, pastry chef Alain Roby who said it took him about three weeks and at least 900 pounds of sugar to make the spectacular candy, which he built in segments that were each about 4- to 8-feet long.
Here's a video of the chef with his cane: