The Christian Candy Cane Lie

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First, Merry Xmas to you all.

That’s right, I’m an atheist but I celebrate Christmas. Not for its religious aspects, but for the family and sense of community that emerges during this season. And for many other, secular and non-religious reasons.

One of the traditions that my family has is driving through one of the local neighborhoods where Christmas lights are displayed in all their Griswaldian fashion (in fact, there’s an award given each year called the “Griswald Award!).

Tonight, on our annual Xmas-eve drive, one of the families was out by the curb handing out candy canes to passers-by along with a printed sheet. Their theme was solely religious with a nativity, angels, and a big, lit sign that said “it’s the reason for the season” out front. The printed sheet read thus:

The Candy Cane
The Legend is:

It was invented by a Christian in England in the 7th century. At that time the government would not let people celebrate Christmas. So a candy maker made candy in the shape of a shepherds crook to be a secret symbol of Jesus. The three small strips represent the Father, Son, and The Holy Spirit. The large red stripe represented the life that Jesus gave for us. The candy was a double gift: a sweet treat and a symbol of Christmas.

In a word: bullshit.

The Christmas tree seems to have emerged at around the 7th century in Britain, and Christmas likely arrived with the Romans around this period, but there isn’t any indication, that I’m aware of, that the “government” in England would not let people celebrate Christmas. I should think it was something of the opposite: the “government,” being the newly arrived Romans, were pushing Christianity on the Saxons, forcing them to accept Roman religious dogma and superstition over indigenous ones. This seems to be the origin of the Christmas tree, a cross between early Christian and “pagan” tradition.

Perhaps the author of the sheet meant “17th” century and the “1″ was omitted through a typo. If so, then there seems to be something more to the “legend,” though there are still some problems with it.

Up to around 1670, experienced and amateur confectionists were making candies that were essentially hard sugar sticks. In Germany that year, a choirmaster bent the sticks into the shape of a shepherd’s staff, but there was no secret to their meaning. He was just being clever with an already existing candy[1][2]. The practice caught on and spread throughout Europe and, eventually, America. Puritans in England under Cromwell around this time did, essentially, ban Christmas celebrations, but candy canes remained solid white until around the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. Indeed, Christmas cards prior to 1900 show only solid white canes with striped candies appearing on cards after 1900.

The claim that the stripes are representative of various cult superstitions within Christianity (variations of these claims include the “J” for “Jesus” with the inverted cane) are baseless and appear to be correlations that are looking for causations that don’t exist.

To summarize:

  • There’s no secret symbol of Jesus.
  • There’s no representation of the Trinity or Jesus’ blood.
  • There’s no “J” for “Jesus.”
  • There was no “England” in the 7th Century.
  • There was no ban on Christmas in the 7th Century Britain.
  • There was barely a Christmas and it was being pushed by Romans on Saxons in Britain.
  • There was, however, a deliberate effort to shape candy as a shepherd’s staff for churchgoers in Germany.
  • Red stripes mostly after 1900.
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  1. Collins, Andrew (2003). Stories Behind The Great Traditions of Christmas. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, pp. 42-43 []
  2. The History of Candy Canes [] []
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