“With the coffee we served striped candy canes. Well, Betty, I believe I’ve told you everything about our Christmas luncheon.”
From A Thousand Ways to Please a Husband: with Bettina’s Best Recipes by Louise Bennett Weaver and Helen Cowles Le Cron first published 1917
Today’s image: the candy cane
The symbolism here seems straightforward enough, even if the origins are fable. There is an association between candy canes and St Nicholas Day on 6th December, probably because St Nicholas is often depicted carrying a shepherd’s crook (or crozier). Legend has it that these sweet treats date back to 1670, when the choirmaster at the Cologne Cathedral in Germany handed out sugar sticks among his young singers to keep them quiet. To honour Christmas-time, he bent the candy into the shepherds’ crook shape. It has also been suggested that the traditional red and white stripes of the candy represent the purity of Jesus Christ and the red the blood he shed when he died on the cross, respectively; however, these appear to be post-hoc interpretations.
Not that any of this history is certain. Though we do know that recipes for straight candy sticks appeared in recipe books in the 19th century and, if the above quote is anything to go by, were established by the 20th (though served with coffee – really?) The added flavouring of peppermint was likely a medicinal addition, as a remedy for stomach ailments.
The human love of sweet things is ancestral: early man discovered that sugar provides both energy and a way to help store fat. According to Confectionery historian Tim Richardson (author of Sweets: A History of Temptation), the first documented evidence of humankind’s love of sweet things is a honeycomb depicted in a Stone Age cave painting discovered near Valencia. In it, a plucky individual braves a vine to plunder a bees nest for honey – see the image here. This is much to the annoyance of the bees.
Medieval treats would have continued to rely on honey – and may not have tasted that sweet at all, to the modern palate. One seasonal recipe for Apple Muse is a simple blend of apples, almond milk, and honey. Then came the inexorable rise of sugar in our diets.
From a time before we all took sugar for granted, one of my treasured scenes in literature is a chapter from A Little House on the Prairie: ‘Mr. Edwards meets Santa Claus’. Family friend Mr. Edwards endures the swollen waters of the creek to bring the Ingalls brood some festive goodies. He enthrals with a fireside tale of meeting Santa Claus in the nearby town, and how he offered to carry out the deliveries on St. Nick’s behalf. After opening their stockings, Laura comments: ‘Think of having a cup, and a cake, and a stick of candy, and a penny. There never had been such a Christmas.’ Later the girls suck on the candy until the stick was ‘sharp pointed on one end‘, as you do when you’re savouring a rare treat.
I loved that recounting when I was little. I also read the chapter aloud to my own children, impressing upon them how lucky they were to receive an easy wealth of gifts, and the need for gratitude. Largely, I must report, to their innocent indifference.
Nathan Lee, ‘Animation: The history of sweets’ in The London Economic, November 20 2015.
Laura Ingalls Wilder, The Little House on the Prairie, first published 1932.