2017-12-28 / Editorial Page

Myths Swirl Around Candy Canes

Across The Savannah
By TOM POLAND tompol@earthlink.net


A swirl of candy cane lights at Debra Poland and Teresa Burgess’s “Night of Lights” Dec. 16. A swirl of candy cane lights at Debra Poland and Teresa Burgess’s “Night of Lights” Dec. 16. One treat I loved as a kid were candy canes on a Christmas tree. Striped red and white, they stood out against the green boughs and the menthol-like taste felt cool. Hey, maybe like a taste of snow. When Christmas rolled around, I never gave much thought to any religious symbolism, however. About the best I could do was to imagine them being shepherds’ hooks.

One thing’s for sure. Candy canes are here to stay. We see can­dy canes as small town streetlight decorations, and, as you see here, driveway lights. I still see them on trees, too. So, what is the can­dy cane’s connection with Christ­mas? Well, do some googling and you’ll find stories about the sym­bolism of the J-shaped canes, but be forewarned. Nothing is ever as it seems. Myths swirl around the famed red-and-white confec­tioner’s artistry.

One story goes that the candy cane’s origin hearkens back to the white candy sticks of the early 1400s. More than 200 years later in Germany the white sticks were due for a change. In 1670, the Cologne Cathedral staged a liv­ing nativity scene. Then, as now, kids were a handful and they were giving the choirmaster a hard time, drowning out the music with chatter. He needed to quiet them down. The children won’t be as noisy if they’ve got candy sticks in their mouths he thought. Even better, here’s a chance to teach them about the nativity. He got a local candy maker to make candy sticks shaped like shep­herd’s staffs. Success!

The choirmaster’s idea spread. Not only did candy canes help educate children to the nativity, their shape made them easy to hang on Christmas trees. (Can­dles were also hung on trees back then. Feel nostalgic? Put candles on your tree but try ex­plaining that to your insurance agent if the worst comes to pass.) I found other takes on the popu­lar red-and-white candy canes. The white stripe symbolizes the purity of Christmas; the red stripe represents the shedding of blood by Jesus. The cane itself is an upside-down “J” standing for Jesus.

So, now we know how candy canes came to be so popular at Christmas. Well, no, we don’t. Hold on to your reindeers. I went to Snopes, the website that shoots down rumors and myths. Grinch- like Snopes says the candy cane’s connection to symbols of Chris­tianity is false. Said Snopes, “The peppermint-flavored, red- and-white-striped sugary candy cane can be found everywhere at Christmastime. It’s as much an ornament as it is a confection, and people munch these treats and decorate with them, scarcely giving a thought to just where candy canes came from in the first place.”

Snopes said the closest a re­ligious connection comes took place in 1919 when Bob McCor­mack began making candy canes in Albany, Georgia. By the mid­dle of the century his company had become one of the world’s leading candy cane producers. Still, making peppermint sticks into J-shaped canes required a lot of manual labor so only a small quantity could be made. McCor­mack’s brother-in-law, a Catholic priest named Gregory Harding Keller, invented the Keller Ma­chine. It automated the process of turning straight candy sticks into J-shaped candy canes. There’s your religious tie-in.

Snopes went on to say that claims concerning candy canes’ Christian symbolism spread as re­ligious leaders assured congrega­tions stories behind candy canes are in fact the truth. Several rich­ly illustrated books even tell the “true story” of the candy cane’s origins. Ebenezer-like Snopes closes with this downer. “This is charming folklore, but one should not lose sight of the fact that such stories of the candy cane’s origins are, like Santa Claus, myths and not ‘true stories.’ ”

We used to say, “It’s true. I saw it in the newspaper.” Well, the times do change and now the truth is you just can’t be sure of anything anymore. I say believe what you want to believe. A sweet story is a good story.

Visit my website at www.tom­poland.net

Email me at tompol@earthlink.net

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