Stories Behind The Great Traditions Of Christmas
The book was one that actually surprised me. It was the follow up to Stories Behind The Best-Loved Songs of Christmas and I really enjoyed researching and writing it. What shocked me was the way it took off when it was released. It not only became a best seller, but it has now reached fifteen printings in the United States. What surprised me even more was that it was translated and released in China. It was really fun seeing this book printed in Chinese characters. Every chapter in this book is a winner, but I have been deeply touched by the story of the candy cane, so I offer it as a preview.
There are probably as many legends centered on the candy cane as any other Christmas tradition. Many of the tales that are known today about this familiar hook-shaped peppermint stick are probably as much fable as fact. Nevertheless, in the last seventy-five years, the symbolism of the candy cane, born of legend and now brought to life by a unique striping design, has made it one of the best teaching tools found during the holiday season.
Hard candy has been around almost as long as people have been yearning for sweets. For over a thousand years hard candy has been used to reward children who were good. Yet the multi-colored candy that is seen on store selves today did not exist until the last one hundred years. Because of the time it took to add additional colors by hand, in the past hard candy was usually found in a single color.
When children began to receive special treats on St. Nicholas Day in the fourth century, hard candy was probably one of the first things enjoyed. Yet because the ingredients for this candy were not easy to obtain, and most peasants did not have enough money to purchase these treats often, the sweet was probably a rare delicacy in most households. This rarity and the popularity of the treat means that the first Christian legend associated with the candy cane is probably based on actual events.
Church history records that in 1670, the choirmaster at Germany’s Cologne Cathedral was faced with a problem that still challenges parents, teachers, and choir directors. In ancient Cologne, as well as in thousands of churches today, the children in the choir often grew restless and noisy during especially long services. Most authority figures of the time would have handled this situation through punishment, usually a switch. Yet the choirmaster, who had seen this tactic used time and again, knew that the punitive practice only worked for short periods of time. Soon the painful lesson had been forgotten and the children where again fidgeting and whispering to one another.
The choirmaster came up with a sweetly brilliant plan. He sought out a local candy maker. After looking over the treats in his shop, the music leader paused in front of some white sweet sticks. He knew that children liked this treat, and better yet, it took them a long time to consume the sticks. So this candy seemed perfect for what he needed — a way to keep the children quiet when they were not singing. Yet the choirmaster wondered if the priests and parents would allow him to give the children in his choir candy to eat during a church service. The congregation and clergy would get upset if the children were not quiet, but they would probably also be offended if the kids were eating candy in the sanctuary.
Then inspiration struck! The choirmaster asked the candy maker if he could bend the sticks and make a crook at the top of each one. When the confectioner assured the director that he could, a plan was hatched. The candy would not be just a treat, but it would be a teaching tool. The choirmaster decided that the candy’s pure white color would represent the sinless life of Christ. The crook would serve as a way for the children to remember the story of the shepherds who came to visit the baby Jesus. The shepherds carried staffs or canes, and with the hook at the top of the stick the candy now looked like a cane.
Right before the service the music leader gathered his flock around him and told them the symbolic story of the white candy stick. The congregation and the priests also were enamored with the choirmaster’s inventive tale and believed the use of biblical truths in the lesson to be indeed inspired. But the ultimate compliment for the choirmaster came when his choir was so busy enjoying their long lasting treats that they didn’t disturb the Christmas Eve service at all. Thus began the simple candy cane’s association with the Christian faith.
Within a hundred years, white candy canes were being placed on Christmas trees in Germany. Some may have known the story the choirmaster told his charges in Cologne, but it was more likely that most of those who hung these treats on the tree did so because the hook made it easy to use. The bottom line was that children could not wait for the time to take the tree down, usually on January 6th, the day of Epiphany, so that they could finally eat the decorations.
Another persistent legend surrounding the candy cane is tied to Oliver Cromwell’s rule in England, a time when Christmas celebrations were banned by the Puritan leader. During this short historical period, it is said that a dedicated Christian confectioner created a candy cane as a way for Christians to recognize each other on the street. The candy was supposed to be a type of code or signal, like a secret handshake. These canes, decorated by three tiny red stripes (which represented the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), and another bold thick red stripe that demonstrated the redemptive power of Christ’s blood, were given out to those who professed Christ as their savior.
Could this have been true? Possibly, but as the striping would have had to have been accomplished by hand and would have taken a long time, it is doubtful that the candy maker could have distributed very many of the canes. Thus the symbolic practice would have been observed in only a small part of England, possibly one community or village. Also, though Christmas was officially banned, corporate worship was not, so the need for a symbol of this type would have seemed unnecessary.
More than likely, if the candy maker legend is true, it probably happened not during Cromwell’s reign, but rather when all religions but the Church of England were officially banned. The candy maker could have been a member of an outlawed Protestant faith or the Catholic Church and was using the cane as a teaching tool. So, though largely unsubstantiated, there probably is some truth in this story and the legend survives to this day.
Europeans must have brought the candy cane with them to the United States before the revolution of 1776. Yet the treat’s identification with Christmas didn’t take root until Americans began to celebrate Christmas with presents, trees, and family gatherings two decades before the Civil War. It is said that a German-Swedish immigrant, August Imgard, was the first in the United States to use candy canes as ornaments. In 1847, he placed them on the fir tree he had brought into his Wooster, Ohio home for a holiday decoration. The idea quickly caught on. There are many American Christmas illustrations from the second half of the nineteenth century that show the cane as a part of holiday festivities, but in each case the candy is solid white.
By the turn of the century, the candy cane was incredibly popular during all times of the year, but it was not until the 1920s that it took on it current look. Bob McCormick, who ran a small confectionery in Albany, Georgia, found a way to hand-twist colors into the candy canes. Soon the process was used by others. An Indiana candy maker, whose brother was a priest, knew the old story of the red and white candy cane being used as a way to identify Christians in England. The Christian candy maker created canes that reflected this legend, as well as his own belief. Each of this man’s festive sticks was made with the symbolism of the trinity and the redeeming blood, the hook for the shepherd’s staff, and the white for the purity of Christ. It is even said that in this case, the hook was really the upside-down letter “J,” standing for Jesus. So while the spiritual meaning of the original colored candy cane might well have been a legend in England, within the past century the legendary symbolism has become a reality in the United States and throughout much of the world.
There can be little doubt that hard candy has been associated with the holiday season as long as children have looked forward to seeing St. Nicholas or Christians have repeated the story of Jesus’ birth. Yet the candy cane that probably first appeared at a church service in the Middle Ages, used then as a tool to both teach and appease children, has become one of the sweetest reminders of the real reason for the Christmas season and one of the few holiday traditions that portrays the meaning of why Jesus was born.