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Christmas traditions: Why do we eat candy canes?

As soon as the holidays roll around, grocery store shelves are stacked high with candy canes - but how did they become part of the Christmas season?

Tradition may have begun with the time-honoured pursuit of keeping children quiet

The origins of the humble candy cane may have been in 17th century Germany, when a choirmaster began searching for a way to keep children quite during a long mass. (Christy Nelson/Creative Commons)

As soon as the holidays roll around, grocery store shelves are stacked high with candy canes — but how did they become part of the Christmas season?

Luckily, the origins of the candy cane are slightly more documented than some other holiday traditions. Multiple books have been written on the subject and seem to agree on a common possible explanation: that the candy cane was first invented as an attempt to keep children quiet during the Christmas church service.

According to Ace Collins' Stories Behind the Great Traditions of Christmas, candy canes first came into being around 1670 in Cologne, Germany.

Legend holds that the choirmaster at Cologne Cathedral was searching for a way to keep the children in the choir quiet during the long Christmas service.

Normally at that time, a switch would be used to punish naughty children but the choirmaster knew that wouldn't keep them quiet for long periods of time.

Instead, he decided to give the children candy to suck on throughout the mass.

He supposedly asked a local candy maker to bend sugar sticks into the shape of a shepherd's crook so that he could use the candy as a "teaching tool" during the sermon.

Peppermint flavouring a later invention

It would be centuries before stripes of peppermint or wintergreen were added and the original candy canes were pure white, to symbolize the sinless life of Jesus Christ.

In the book Christmas Legends to Remember, Helen Haidle says the popularity of the candy canes quickly spread from Germany across Europe before being brought to North America by a German-Swedish immigrant in the 1850s.

It wasn't until the 1900s that peppermint flavouring became standard — but it's not clear exactly why.

However it happened, the candy cane has become an embedded part of the Christmas season and will likely continue to be enjoyed by children and adults alike for many years to come.

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