One of the most convoluted and ridiculous Christmas traditions is the candy cane. Not until I began studying the symbols of the advent and the elements that Christians take for granted in their Solstice celebration, that I realized that the candy cane is probably one of the strangest one. At least, the explanations that I've come across are pretty strange.
But it didn't happen overnight. The development of the candy cane took a few hundred years. Apparently, before pacifiers, parents used to give their babies unflavored white sugar sticks to suck on. During the 1670's a German choirmaster had the sugar sticks bent into a shepherd's staff and passed out to children attending the Christmas services. This holiday custom spread throughout Europe and fancy canes, decorated with roses, were used as Christmas decorations in many homes. About 1900 the white candy cane received its traditional red stripes and peppermint flavoring. At the same time the legend of the candy cane came into being. According to this legend, a candy maker in Indiana designed the candy cane to tell the true story of Christmas - a story about a virgin giving birth to a shepherd who would give up His life for the sheep... and the irony of calling Christ followers sheep is probably supposed to be ironic.
The most obvious symbolism that has been bastardized is the candy cane shape. Turned one way, it looks like a "J" for Jesus. Get it? The newborn Lamb of God was named Jesus, meaning Savior, because He was destined to "save His people from their sins" (Mt 1:21). Turned the other way, candy canes remind us of the shepherd's staff. The first people to hear of Christ's birth were shepherds guarding their flocks at night (Lk 2:8-20). Jesus called Himself the Good Shepherd and the Bible frequently compares the actions of the Messiah to those of a shepherd searching for his lost sheep, feeding them, gently leading them, and carrying them in his bosom (Ps 23; Jn 10:1-18; Is 40:11; Jer 31:10; Micah 5:4; Heb 13:20).
My favorite one, that seems pulled out of thin air is, "The sweetness of the candy reminds us that we are fed on the sweet milk of the Gospel of our salvation and peace" (Eph 1:13; 6:15). Er, yeah.
Now for reaching... The hardness of the candy reminds us that Jesus is our rock of refuge (Deu 32:4, 15, 18; 1 Sam 2:2; 2 Sam 22:32, 47; 23:3; Psa 18:2, 31; 28:1; 92:15; 94:22; 95:1; Is 44:8). In rocky lands like Israel, people often sought shelter from their enemies in the caves or rocky crags of cliffs. Rocks also remind us of the solidness of the promises of Christ who is a precious cornerstone and sure foundation to those who follow Him, but a "stone of stumbling and a rock of offense" to those who reject His gift of peace (1 Pet 2:6-8).
The whiteness of the candy is supposed to remind us of the Virgin Birth and the sinless life of Christ (Mt 1:23; Lk 1:34-35). We also are made as pure as the snow through the cleansing action of His blood (Rev 7:9, 14; Is 1:18). Snow? In Israel?
And then the way, way out there - the three red stripes. The three red stripes remind us of the soldiers' stripes by which we are healed and a larger stripe which represents the blood shed by Christ on Calvary's tree (Is 53:5; Mt 27:32-50). Another says the small stripes honor the Holy Trinity while the larger stripe reminds us of the one true God. Others claim that the small stripes represent our mini-passions or sufferings and the great stripe symbolizes Christ's Passion. A green stripe is sometimes placed on candy canes to remind us that Jesus is God's gift to us. (Green is the color of giving.) I can go on...
Now let's get really nuts: The peppermint flavor of modern candy canes is said to be similar to hyssop. In Old Testament times, hyssop was associated with purification and sacrifice. During the first Passover celebrations, 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 (Ex 12:22). Bundles of hyssop were also used to sprinkle blood on worshipers and objects during Mosaic purification rituals (Ex 24:6-8; Lev 14:4, 49-52). After his affair with Bathsheba, King David appealed to God's mercy crying, "Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me and I shall be whiter than snow" (Ps 51:7). Peppermint reminds us that Jesus is our Passover Lamb (1 Cor 5:7). His blood cleanses us from sin and destroys the power of death (Hosea 13:14; 1 Cor 15:54-57; Heb 2:14-15; Rev 20:6). Or maybe it's just peppermint?
Who knew you could read so much into a simple curved sugar stick - but let me ask you biblical scholars out there - how many angels can dance on the curve of the candy cane top?
Except where otherwise indicated all scripture quotes are from the NKJV.
Sources taken from Tucker, Suzetta. "ChristStory Christmas Symbols - Candy Cane." ChristStory Christian Bestiary. 1999.