The Murky History Behind Christmas Candy Canes

This time of year, you can't walk more than a few feet without encountering a candy cane. These delicious seasonal treats are everywhere you look in the month of December, and their image has become synonymous with the yuletide season. Everyone loves a good peppermint candy during the holidays, but we don't often stop to consider why they are they way they are. What does the traditional red and white coloring mean, and why are they shaped like little hooks? 


All these questions and more have answers that are, quite literally, the stuff of legend. Much of the candy cane's origin can be traced back to Europe in the 17th century, where they were first introduced and popularized. Exploring a bit deeper into what makes these traditional treats so iconic is a bit of a muddy affair, as records of this type of information aren't the most detailed, thus conflicting takes can emerge. However, food scholars agree that the candy cane's history likely began with a far different shape and color scheme!

Candy canes weren't always striped

Even though it would be unheard of nowadays to see candy canes without their ever-present red-and-white stripe pattern, this was not always the case. The candy cane made its debut in 17th century Europe, when the practice of "pulling sugar" was beginning to be a popular trend. The candy was used to coax choirboys not to chit-chat idly during their performances, under the belief that if they had sweet candy to pass the time, they wouldn't disturb the proceedings. At this time in history, the canes were entirely white and not shaped in a curve. The curvature was said to only be added after church-goers complained that the choirboy candy was distracting and served no religious purpose. The candy was then bent into a hook to resemble the more religious shape of a staff. This story has been contested, however, with many current day food scholars believing it was just as likely the hook was added to make it easier to hang from trees and garland.


The decision to use revolving red and white striping didn't come until around 200 years later, when the candy finally made its way to the United States. Even then, it boiled down to a simple marketing strategy. Since they were colors that the public associated with the Christmas holiday anyway, it was an easy solution. Now, even though the color and flavor scheme can vary wildly, red and white peppermint is the overall favorite of the holiday season. 

Candy canes aren't always peppermint

Even though they are most commonly peppermint, a flavor which we associate with coldness,, candy canes are often utilized as a grounds for experimentation. This rise in avant-garde flavoring was never more active in the confectionary community than during the 2021 peppermint shortage, which was due to the nearly 25% decline in overall peppermint production over the preceding decade, which we're still feeling the effects of today. In lieu of peppermint, it's not bizarre to encounter chocolate, cinnamon, or even fruit-based flavors hanging off the limbs of your family Christmas tree. In the past few years, unorthodox risk-taking in the flavor department has leading to such triumphs, or debacles, as the pickle candy cane, or the macaroni and cheese candy cane. Though you should be encouraged to take risks with your snack consumption, don't be surprised if, when you go to offer a party guest a candy cane, they recoil when you hand them one flavored like kale, a popular novelty flavor manufactured by Archie McPhee. 


So, the next time you grab a peppermint stick off the Christmas tree, keep in mind that you have history to thank for its pleasing colors and curve! Without the advent of a few interveners hundreds of years ago, your stocking could be filled with drab white sugar sticks instead of the amazing candy canes for which lots of folks wait year-round. The holidays would be a lot less happy without them!