caandy-caneToday we have endless holiday confections to choose from, yet nothing embodies the spirit of Christmas quite like the candy cane. We happily devour them, sprinkle crushed ones on cookies, and stir them in to steaming cups of hot cocoa. Sometime we even hang them on the tree. But have you ever wondered how the candy cane became such a symbol of the season?

The Internet is filled with colorful legends about the origin of this Christmas confection. Here’s what we know for sure: it was a team effort. A German immigrant, and an American entrepreneur created the candy cane that we know and love today.

The practice of using food items to decorate Christmas trees originated in Germany, where families adorned their evergreens with cookies and candies. Immigrants brought this tradition to America, and a man named August Irmgard was one of those early adopters. He decorated the Christmas tree in his Wooster, Ohio home with candy canes in 1847 – the first recorded use of the candy in America.

Candy canes didn’t always have stripes – and they weren’t always canes. They were once simple white sticks of sugar, marketed as a treat for children. While the use of colored stripes dates back to at least 1844, modern candy canes didn’t appear on Christmas cards until after 1900. The turn of the century also marks the first time candy makers began flavoring them with peppermint and wintergreen. They may be a simple treat, but candy canes weren’t simple to produce. Melted sugar was spun by hand, pulled to great length, rolled tightly, then cut into pieces. The crooks were originally hand-bent, a very labor-intensive process that frequently resulted in broken candy.

The popularity of candy canes grew rapidly once Bob McCormack began mass-producing them in the 1920’s. His brother-in-law, Gregory Keller, invented a machine to automate manufacturing, virtually eliminating breakage. Bob pioneered the practice of protecting candy canes from moisture by wrapping them in cellophane, and his company is now the world’s largest producer of striped candies. Year after year, candy canes are the number one selling non-chocolate candy during the month of December, with nearly 2 billion sold annually. They now come in a  variety of flavors, with multiple color and stripe options available.

So, there you have it – the story of how a peppermint stick with a hook became synonymous with the season. How do you use candy canes this time of year?