Holiday traditions you can never miss are decorating the Christmas tree, putting the star at the top, and seeing the red and white of Santa's suit everywhere you go. As we shift from the orange and browns of Thanksgiving, no candy becomes more iconic than the red and white of the candy cane. 

Although it seems like these cultural traditions are as old as humanity itself, the origin of the candy cane can be traced back to 1600s, and its first documented appearance in America dates back to the late 1800s. It didn't really become popular until a candy maker made these sweet peppermint treats on a mass scale. But what is a candy cane, exactly? And who can lay claim on beginning the tradition of eating candy canes? Here are a few popular theories. 

What's a Candy Cane, Anyway? 

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Jocelyn Hsu

Before we dive into the theories surrounding the candy cane's origins, you should first know what it is. A candy cane is a classic Christmas candy that's some sort of sugar with added water, flavors, processing ingredients, and coloring added in. (AKA, we can't get the real recipe, but you can look at someone else's homemade recipe for referece). 

Theory #1: Keeping Kids Quiet in Church

Gingerbread, sweets, candy and cookies HD photo by Mira (@miroslava) on Unsplash

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The story that makes the most sense is that during the season of "advent" in the Christian religion (and during the time when the Christmas season happens), a pastor wanted to quiet all the children in church during a long nativity scene so he passed around a white stick of candy to each child to keep them occupied. He added a peppermint flavor for the delight of the children, but didn't add any coloring to it (think Lifesavers, at this point). This was the late 1800s, so it's unlikely that food coloring was really a thing, and the red stripe wasn't added until 1900.

Theory #2: Its Shape Represents Jesus

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Jocelyn Hsu

Another popular theory is that the peppermint stick got its cane shape so to represent the 'J' in Jesus Christ, the spiritual teacher that Christians believe rose from the dead and went to heaven. The red stripe represents the blood of Jesus, and the white part represents the purity of Jesus since he was perfect, according to Christian scripture. 

Although this deep meaning for candy is possible, it has never been fully proven that the current shape of the candy cane was intentional, and it's more likely to do with the fact that making a hook shape allowed the candy to be hung on the popular Christmas tree that is used to celebrate the holiday.

The Modernization of the Candy Cane

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Dylan Barth

The candy cane as it is today didn't really become culturally popular until the 1950s when Bob's Candies came out with their own version, and an inventor created a machine to automatically make them in very large quantities (before, they had to bend the J shape by hand). 

Nowadays, candy canes come in all sorts of colors and flavors, but more than that, they have become an iconic Christmas treat. Check out these peppermint dessert recipes for some fun ways to use candy canes this holiday season.