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Candy Canes Bring a Twist to the Holidays

The red and white candy cane has a long and storied past. But is there a right way to eat one?

By Rosie Wolf Williams

Dangling from the Christmas tree, tucked into party favors, or bathing in a cup of hot chocolate, candy canes are winter sweets that show up as a familiar guest to many winter holiday gatherings.

An illustration of candy canes. Next Avenue, candy cane history
Candy canes are available throughout the year, but about 90% of them are sold in the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas Day.  |  Credit: Getty

"Americans love the tradition of including chocolate and candy in their celebrations of the winter holidays – and nothing is more iconic during this time than candy canes," says Carly Schildhaus, spokesperson for the National Confectioners Association.

The first canes were made entirely of white candy and without the trademark hook, but sometime in the early 1900s the familiar red and white canes appeared. Today they are available in traditional peppermint, along with fruit, sour or even cereal flavors.

The Sweet Beginnings of the Candy Cane

When it comes to the origins of the candy cane, we only have legends. Some say a creative choirmaster in Germany in the 1600s handed out the sweets to the child singers to keep them quiet during a Christmas ceremony, bending the canes to give a nod to the shepherds in the story of the Nativity.

The first canes were made entirely of white candy and without the trademark hook, but sometime in the early 1900s the familiar red and white canes appeared.

A German-Swedish immigrant named August Imgard brought the candy cane tradition to Ohio in 1847, decorating a spruce tree with paper and candy canes. Soon, red and white peppermint-flavored candy canes were a familiar part of the holiday season.

Although it is unclear whether the candy cane's cathedral debut in Germany is true, a man of the cloth did have a part in making the candy cane available to the masses. In the 1920s, a candy maker named Bob McCormack made candy canes by hand and distributed them locally in Albany, Georgia.

But decades later, his candy business, known as Bobs Candies, could not keep up with the demand. Candymakers had to bend the delicate candies into a hook by hand after they came from the manufacturing belt, and a majority of them broke into pieces.

In the 1950s, McCormack's brother-in-law, Gregory Keller, stepped in to help. Keller, a priest, invented a machine that automated the bending process. The machine allowed production levels to rise, and Bobs Candies began to sell the sweets nationwide. They quickly became a holiday tradition for millions.

How They Are Made

To make candy canes, candy makers heat corn syrup and sugar in a kettle and vacuum cook to speed drying. The candy is poured onto a large cooling table where flavors are added along with starches to hold in the flavoring and to keep the candy from being too sticky. Then it is "pulled" by machine until silken and white in color.

After being formed into a log shape, colorful stripes are formed and aded to the white log.  Once the log is put back on the rollers, the stripes are twisted around the log as it is stretched into a rope shape. Then the long ropes are cut into strips. While still warm, the candy is packaged into plastic wrappers and bent into a hook-shape before being placed into their "cradles" for shipping. You can see how Spangler Candy Company makes their candy canes here.

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Season's Sweetings

"Candy canes are a nostalgic cultural symbol, and they've stood the test of time because they provide an easy, stress-free way to make holiday moments sweeter," says Katie Duffy, vice president and general manager of Seasonal Marketing at Ferrara Candy Company (Brach's purchased Bobs Candies in 2005, then the Ferrara Candy Company took over the Brach's brand). "Candy canes are the number one sugar confection in the holiday season, and Brach's makes over 500 million candy canes each year."

"One fun debate related to candy canes is whether there is a 'right' way to eat them."

Although candy canes are available throughout the year, about 90% of candy canes are sold in the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas Day, says Duffy. In fact, they are the best-selling non-chocolate candy in the month of December. National Candy Cane Day is celebrated on December 26, when many families pick the candy canes off their trees.

"One fun debate related to candy canes is whether there is a 'right' way to eat them," says Schildhaus. "Our research shows that most Americans (57%) start with the straight end first, while 27% begin with the curved end and just 16% of people say they break the candy canes into pieces."

Candy canes have no fat or cholesterol and are a smart but sweet snack at around 50 calories per regular size cane – and the tiny canes are a mere 11 calories on average. And don't throw away those broken candy canes! They can be used in recipes to add a wintery mint flavor to cakes, muffins, and confections.

Rosie Wolf Williams
Rosie Wolf Williams is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in USA Weekend, Woman's Day, AARP the Magazine and elsewhere. Read More
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