The candy cane

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Friday, December 20, 2013


THERE are several Christmas foods with long and storied histories, but the candy cane is the one that has the most correlation with the birth of Our Lord. Candy canes can be found all year round, but stores usually order them in bulk around Christmas time. The sweet minty stick is usually peppermint flavored, but some not-so-traditional candy companies have flavored their candy canes with things like cola, strawberry or even chili.

As much as kids of all ages love the candy cane, it was originally designed to keep children quiet during the annual nativity plays. In 17th century Cologne (Köln), Germany, the choirmaster of the Cologne Cathedral was sick and tired of all the noise that the children were making that was interrupting the singing of his choir during the nativity scene. He could not scold the children, since he was busy conducting the choir, but soon he came up with an idea: if the children were kept busy with candy in their mouths, there would be no noise.

The choirmaster enlisted the help of a local candy maker and requested a basket of sweet-sticks for the young, noisy members of his audience. Now, sweet-sticks were plain white sticks of solid sugar, but they had very little to do with Christmas and the choirmaster wanted to change that. Besides, he needed to justify giving sweets to children during worship services. He requested the candy maker to bend them into shepherds’ crooks to remind the children of the shepherds during the nativity. The white color was also a symbol of Jesus’ sinless life.

The holiday custom soon spread throughout Europe, and German immigrants took it with them to the United States, where it was given its signature red and white stripes and peppermint flavor in 1900 while its sweet-stick cousins were being flavored with things like cinnamon and root beer. It was around this time that additional symbolism was added to the candy cane – a candy maker from Indiana designed the candy cane to tell the true story of Christmas: about a Shepherd, born of a Virgin, who would give up His life for His sheep.

Aside from the fact that it looks like a shepherd’s crook, the cane turned upside down can also symbolize a “J” for Jesus. Another interesting detail is the stripes that you see on a traditional candy cane – there are three small stripes and one big one. Some say that the three small stripes stand for either the Holy Trinity or the stripes inflicted on Jesus by the flagellum (a Roman whip with multiple heads), while the large stripe stands for Christ’s Passion and Death or for the One True God.

Another connection with Jesus that the candy cane has is its flavor. Peppermint is the sweet cousin of the bitter hyssop plant. In Old Testament times, hyssop was associated with purification and sacrifice.

During the first Passover celebrations, when the Israelites fled Egypt, a bundle of hyssop was used to smear the blood of Passover lambs upon the doorposts of houses so that the Angel of Death would pass over their occupants.

Symbolism aside, the candy cane is a delicious holiday treat that you can hang on your Christmas tree or decorate your house with.

Published in the Sun.Star Bacolod newspaper on December 20, 2013.

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