Almost all symbols used during Christmas point to the message of the Gospel. But there’s one emblem that has sweetened our palettes for years while seeking to touch our hearts even before it touches the tongue.
It started with a choirmaster at Cologne Cathedral in Germany seeking a remedy for the noise children would make in church during the Living Crèche tradition of Christmas Eve, according to tradition. In 1670, he got a brilliant idea. He asked a candy maker for some sweet sticks which would act as pacifiers for children. He also wanted the candy maker to add a crook to the top to symbolize the shepherds who paid visit to infant Jesus. And it had to be pure white, signifying the sinless nature of Jesus Christ, whose birth we celebrate as Christmas, as recorded in the book Great Traditions of Christmas published by Zondervan.
Yes, it’s J-shaped candy canes.
But that’s not all this symbol has to offer to the world. That was just the beginning of the tradition’s evolution as the practice spread to other parts of Europe where candy canes were distributed during Nativity plays. Candy canes soon made their way into literature in Europe.
The practice arrived in the United States in the 1850s with a German-Swedish immigrant, August Imgard, in Wooster, Ohio, decorating his pine tree with paper ornaments and white candy canes. While there is no available source to tell when and how, the pure white candies soon began to carry red stripes signifying the essence of the Christian faith.
“The three small red stripes represent the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit,” says Harriet Cooper, who owns Priscilla Candies in Lawrence, Mass. “And the larger red stripe to represent the blood that Jesus shed for our sins,” she tells CBN News. Some also believe the white stripes represent the virginity of Jesus’ mother, Mary, and the hardness of the candy signifies the rock on which the Church is built.
Candy canes are perhaps the only symbol that encapsulate the message of Christmas, that Christ, who is co-equal with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit, was born as fully human and yet fully God through His virgin birth to die on the cross as ransom for the sins of the whole world.
The commercialization of candy canes can be attributed to candy manufacturer Bob McCormack, who began making candy canes as Christmas treats for his children, friends and local shopkeepers in Albany, Ga., in the early 20th century. A January 1919 edition of Albany Herald announced it this way: “Another new enterprise has been announced. A candy factory will be established here at an early date by ‘Birmingham capitalists.’”
In the 1950s, McCormack’s brother-in-law, Gregory Keller, a Catholic priest, invented a machine to make the “J” shaped candies, which were then transported to other parts of the United States and the world. Today, the company started by McCormack is called Farley’s & Sathers Candy Company, Inc.
However, there are Christians who still prefer to make Christmas candy canes with their hands, even if the product is meant to be sold. Candy manufacturers Cooper and her husband Norman from Massachusetts are one such example. “In the course of a season, we make about 5,000 candy canes – one at a time,” the wife says.
It’s hard work, but worth the effort given the message the candy canes carry. She hopes the story stays with the buyers. “Sometimes it doesn’t mean something to them right away as a child, but later down the line, I’m hoping they think back and say, ‘Yes, I remember what that means.”