The evolving candy cane

Published 4:48 pm Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Children have been hooked on candy canes for centuries, but the barber-shop-pole-striped candies with a hook on one end that are so well known today have gone through a number of changes through the years — not the least of which was adding that hook.

It is uncertain where the candy cane originated, but by the mid-17th century they were a popular European candy enjoyed by many children. They were a time intensive treat that confectioners had to pull, cut and twist.

It wasn’t until later years that the stick was bent into a staff.

The distinctive bend in the candy cane which makes it look like a staff is credited to a German choirmaster. It is believed that in 1670 he bent the straight sticks to represent a shepherd’s crook and distributed them to children at church services.

“Christ is referred to as a shepherd throughout scripture,” said Stewart McCarter, senior pastor at Southside Baptist Church. “In Psalm 23, David says, ‘The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.’ And in John 10, he calls himself the good Shepherd by saying, ‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”

In the beginning, the hook may have had another purpose, as well.

It was popular at the time for the German people to decorate their yule trees with foods, and the hook could have provided a practical hanger.

August Imgard, a German-Swedish immigrant, is credited with bringing the treats to American in 1847 to hang on his Christmas tree. In following decades, Christmas cards showed white canes decorating trees. By the 20th century, cards depicted red and white striped canes.

The barber pole stripes aren’t believed to have held religious significance originally, but there is a widely known analogy that the red stands for Christ’s blood and the white represents our sins after forgiveness.

“In Isaiah 1, it says ‘Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow,’” McCarter said. “Our lives are sinful, and then we’re forgiven and the blood washes us clean.”