December 3, 2020

Candy Canes

I often hear the phrase “the reason for the season” at this time of year. In case you are wondering what the reason for this season is, I can tell you in one five-letter word.


Pure, one hundred percent cane sugar, and lots of it. To quote that great keeper of Christmas, Buddy the Elf, when asked if he liked syrup, “Is there sugar in syrup? Then yes!”

You can’t have Christmas fudge and Christmas cookies and Christmas cake without Christmas sugar. And I’m not talking the manmade kind, the high fructose chemical concoction. Or the fake sugar that has become so popular because it has fewer calories. When it comes to sugar, I’ll trust God over scientists, thank you.

(Adam Palmer and his family spent a year in Uganda. He once wrote to me, “You’ve got to come over here. They have Coke made with real cane sugar!” Alas, I never quite made it to Uganda to tip a Coke or three with Adam.)

The essence of sugar at this time of year has to be the candy cane. The striped candy cane with plastic protecting it until you are ready to let it melt in your mouth.  No caramel filling, no chocolate coating. Just pure sugar. Hung on the tree just waiting to ruin someone’s meal.

The candy cane is sugar made to resemble the a shepherd’s crook.  Yes, I know there is a tract available to explain to me the supposed history of the candy cane as a witnessing tool. But I am not interested in that at all. And that is the point of what I’m writing right now. I don’t have a need to make the candy cane into a witnessing tool. I’m good with candy canes simply being candy.

Besides, the “true story of the candy cane” is not true. Not one bit. (Snopes is your friend in these kinds of things.) Here it is, as passed on in emails by well-meaning Christians this time of year.

A candymaker in Indiana wanted to make a candy that would remind people of the true meaning of Christmas; so he made the candy cane to incorporate several symbols for the birth, ministry, and death of Jesus Christ. He began with a stick of pure white, hard candy. White to symbolize the Virgin Birth and the sinless nature of Jesus, and hard to symbolize the Solid Rock, the foundation of the Church, and the firmness of the promises of God.

The candymaker then shaped his cane into the form of a “J” to represent the precious name of Jesus, who came to the earth as Savior. It could also represent the staff of the “Good Shepherd” with which He reaches down to to reclaim the fallen lambs who, like sheep, have gone astray.

Thinking that the candy was somewhat plain, the candymaker stained it with red stripes. He used three small stripes to show the stripes of the scourging Jesus received. The large red stripe was for the blood shed by Christ on the cross so that we could have the promise of eternal life.

Ok, first of all, think about this for a minute. Candy canes have been around longer than the state of Indiana has been around. Stick candy is hundreds of years old. A German immigrant living in Ohio in the 19th century did manage to make the sticks with a curved top to hang them from his Christmas tree–not to make the letter “j.” And the stripes were not added until sometime in the 20th century. Candy canes are just candy canes, no matter what cute children’s book you just read in your local Christian bookstore. The entire story above is made up. It’s not true.

Or take the song we are all tired of right now, The Twelve Days Of Christmas. Are the twelve “gifts” mentioned actually secret code for Christian symbols? If you believe the email that goes around this time of year, then yes. You know: “two turtle doves” equal the Old and New Testaments, “eight maids a-milking” equal the eight beatitudes, etc. Sigh. I won’t go into the ridiculousness of this made-up tripe other than to say it is ridiculous made-up tripe.

(My favorite version of this song is The Twelve Pains Of Christmas. No symbolism needed in this song. It’s all laid out in clear English!)

So why is it we feel compelled to come up with fabricated stories to pair with candy or a song? Why do we feel it necessary to create a meaningful symbol out of everything? Maybe someone has come up with the reason holly berries are red. Or why we always see the wise men as riding camels. Is there a hidden meaning behind Christmas tree lights? Or eggnog? What about wrapping paper and bows? What do those symbolize in the Christian faith?

Can we stop this silliness and just enjoy Christmas? Eat a candy cane while singing the Twelve Days of Christmas and don’t try to give these things deeper meanings. Relax. You’ll give yourself a headache.

Oh—and as to the real “reason for the season,” that’s an easy one. It’s me. If I had not sinned and gone astray, there would be no need for God to have become “God with us.” Suck on a candy cane and think on that one for a while.


  1. “Maybe someone has come up with the reason holly berries are red.”

    The Holly Bears A Berry


    • Could always adapt this (paraphrased) exchange about mistletoe from Terry Pratchett’s ‘Hogfather’:

      “So the berries symbolise… white, and the leaves symbolise green, Archchancellor”
      “And what do those colours signify, Senior Wrangler?”
      “Well, white and green are symbolic of… mistletoe”
      “So mistletoe, in fact, symbolises mistletoe. That statement is either utterly superficial or so profound it could take a lifetime to unravel”
      “It could be both”
      “And that statement is either highly perceptive or very trite”
      “It could be-” “Don’t push it, Senior Wrangler”

  2. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    Cane Sugar.

    Not Repeat NOT High Fructose Corn Syrup.

    • Can anyone really actually taste the difference? Pepsico has put out those “throw back” sodas containing “real sugar”, and you know what? I can’t taste the difference. Pepsi with HFCS tastes the EXACT SAME as Pepsi with “real sugar”.

      • I know I can taste the difference between Mexican soda and American soda. Of course, the delis in New York charge an extra buck for the glass bottled Mexican soda, but it’s worth it.

        Is the difference just the sugar? I don’t know. But the Mexican sodas are so much better.

      • The Guy from Knoxville says

        No sir Pastor! There is a very distinctive difference in the corn syrup version versus the cane sugar version of coke. I’ve tried both many times and the sugar just simply tastes better so find the Mexican food section of your local food store a get a few – now they are more expensive but good for a change from time to time. Besides orginal cokes were cane sugar sweetened anyway and I think Coca-Cola quit on the cane sugar because it was cheeper to do corn syrup than the cane sugar – cokes would probably be a little more expensive if they used the real thing but I would gladly pay more (and do – Mexican) to have the better taste.

        Your body may not do things different in processing the corn syrup or the cane sugar but the taste is the real diver here and the cane sugar is the best hands down. BTW, find and try Red Rock Colas – talking about a nice bite and sweetened with cane sugar……. it’s like coke on steroids taste wise and it to is a good alternative but more expensive. We try to keep a few of those or the Mexican cokes on hand through the year for a nice change of pace.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Also, your body metabolizes Fructose (Corn Syrup) slightly differently from Sucrose (Cane Sugar). I’ve compared notes with others and found that with Sucrose you don’t drink as much soda before you feel you’ve had enough. Like the Sucrose metabolizes into a sugar high/satisfaction sooner, while with Fructose you keep drinking more before you feel you’ve had enough. This might be one of the reasons for “the Obesity Epidemic” beginning right after HFCS replaced cane sugar pretty much everywhere.

        • HUG, I saw something on 60 Minutes recently, called “The Flavorists”, about the people who try to find the optimum flavors for products. One of their goals is to get a flavor that is pleasing, yet doesn’t linger long—so that the consumer doesn’t quite feel satisfied, and keeps going back for more. This could be one of the reasons for the shift to HFCS too, aside from the economic factor.

    • If it be sugar…. I’d be screwed….. 😯

    • Richard Hershberger says

      As a point of information, you seem to be contrasting “cane sugar” with “high fructose corn syrup”. Cane sugar is a fairly simple compound called sucrose. There are other sources of sucrose. Sugar beets are the notable example. If you are talking about fully refined white sugar, it makes no difference whether it comes from cane or beets. There may be differences in the partially refined forms. Fructose is a different, albeit similar, compound, found in a wide range of plants.

      I strongly suspect that the reason the phrase “cane sugar” rolls off the tongue is an old advertising campaign by C & H Sugar. They used to run ads promoting their “pure cane sugar from Hawaii.” C & H started out as a merchant firm shipping between California and Hawaii, hence the “C & H”. They turned this into a marketing tool by proudly proclaiming the origin of their product in such a way as to hint, but not actually claim in any legally actionable way, that sucrose from cane and in particular cane grown in Hawaii, was a better product than sugar from other sources. This is complete nonsense, but the phrase stuck.

  3. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    The candy cane is sugar made to resemble the a shepherd’s crook. Yes, I know there is a tract available to explain to me the supposed history of the candy cane as a witnessing tool.

    When all you have is a hammer…

    So why is it we feel compelled to come up with fabricated stories to pair with candy or a song? Why do we feel it necessary to create a meaningful symbol out of everything?

    More like legends accreting around something Important.

    P.S. Never mind candy canes. I gained 15 pounds (7-8 kilos) last year from Peanut Butter M&Ms alone. Now I’ve overloaded my pancreas and have to lose again.

  4. For what it’s worth, Mexico also uses cane syrup in its Coca-Cola. I’m not a big fan of soft drinks, but I was still quite impressed with how good the Mexican version was when I tried it in Mexico City a couple years ago — it goes a long way in explaining why Mexico is the biggest consumer of the stuff. Moreover, you can actually find Mexican Coca-Cola here in the US — and surely in Oklahoma in particular — whereas the Ugandan version, I imagine, is pretty hard to come by anywhere with a longitude ending in “W.”

    • We sell the Mexican Coca-Cola in the market where I work. But I have never tried it.

      I’ll give it a whirl!

      Thanks for the info.!

    • The Guy from Knoxville says

      Just check the Mexican/Hispanic food section of you local grocery and you should be able to find the cokes in the tall glass bottles however they are more expensive but I find it is worth it to have the better taste from time to time. I’ve emailed Coca-Cola here in the states about putting cane sugar back in the drinks here but no response which is not suprising. If more people did they might just change it back.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      There’s also this Mexican green apple soda called “Mundel” that I’ve only been able to find at one Wal-Mart in my area. Every time I have to hit Wal-Mart I pick up half a dozen or so. Really good stuff. Very high quality.

      • Ahhhh… The two times I have been in Mexico City I’ve loved the refresco de manzana there, the apple soda.

        That and the fresh mangos and canteloupes… Can’t get anything that good here.

  5. ‘If I had not sinned and gone astray, there would be no need for God to have become “God with us.”‘

    Unless you consider what Athenasius said, that the state of human beings as united to God through the incarnation of Christ is so far above the merely sinless state of Adam and Eve in the garden, that God would still have taken on flesh in order to be wedded to humanity even if we had never sinned. Now _that_ is something I like chewing on over Christmas.

  6. Randy Thompson says

    I can tolerate “The 12 Days of Christmas” song only when they start with the 12th day of Christmas and work their way down to the first day—quickly.

    As to the question, “Why do we feel it necessary to create a meaningful symbol out of everything?”:

    I think we feel it necessary to create meaningful symbols out of various innocuous Christmas songs or objects because Christmas itself was a meaningful symbol imposed by the early church on one of the most pagan times of the year, the Saturnalia and the Roman New Year—the Kalends of January. The history of the celebration of Christmas is a wrestling match between the church and the surrounding pagan culture over what this time of year means. Our current commercialized Christmas is the result of attempts 200 years ago (or thereabouts) to “create meaningful symbols” out of a drunken, rowdy celebration that had more to do with New Year’s Eve on Times Square than a midnight Christmas Eve service or mass (which seemingly have become extinct here in New England). Now, the wrestling match is between the spiritual meaning of Christmas and the commercialized version, and so the need to create meaningful symbols continues on. Better a meaningful candy cane than merely a tasty one.

    After all, December 25 has as much to do with Christ’s birth as the story of the candy cane has to do with candy canes!

    • Randy-

      The idea that Christmas was “imposed’ on pagan holidays is debatable. A more likely explanation is that the Early Church thought the Annunciation occurred on March 25; thus, nine months later, Jesus is born!

  7. Here is a good meditation I just read while sucking on that candy cane.
    What If….

    A poem by jill briscoe on the Manger

    What if the manger had been empty, and no angel in the sky…

  8. So why is it we feel compelled to come up with fabricated stories to pair with candy or a song?

    I think it’s in part an attempt to make “sacred” things that are viewed as “secular,” and in doing so to make us feel better/more justified about them. In some ways it’s a kinider, gentler expression of the Christmas and culture wars. What gets lost in all this of course is the appreciation of all of God’s creation and all good things as sacred in and of themselves, and that is an enormous loss.

    • Exactly this.

    • “What gets lost in all this of course is the appreciation of all of God’s creation and all good things as sacred in and of themselves, and that is an enormous loss.” So true!

      I was so frustrated over this whole issue this past week while planning Christmas Eve service. I don’t have a problem if people want to use the candy cane as an object lesson or teaching tool for children. What gets me is when ‘Christians’ feel the need to invent/pass along a legend as if it was true to justify their use of the object lesson! I mean, c’mon! Be honest. Just say its an object lesson. Why does “a candy maker from Indiana” somehow make the object lesson more legitmate?

      • Because it’s only real if it happens to Americans?

        Like the 2000 film “U-571” about the capture of the Enigma code machines in the Second World War, which re-wrote it so that Americans rather than the British were responsible so that the film would be a success with American audiences, as the screen-writer admitted:

        “”It was a distortion… a mercenary decision to create this parallel history in order to drive the movie for an American audience,” he said.”

        We don’t have candy canes as such over here, but we do have sticks of rock, with the invention of lettered rock being attributed to sometime around 1876. Never heard any religious significance attributed to it, though.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          Never heard any religious significance attributed to it, though.

          That’s because you’re not in a 24/7/365 Culture War Without End, Amen.

          When you are, EVERYTHING MUST HAVE RELIGIOUS/GODLY SIGNIFICANCE as part of the Culture Struggle against the Vast Secular Humanist Conspiracy. Just like how to classic Communists, EVERYTHING was Political, part of The Class Struggle.

          P.S. And in “U-571”, they get chased across the Atlantic by a German DESTROYER? The Allies had full sea control of the surface of the Atlantic; any Kreigsmarine surface ship that sortied would first have to get past the British Isles (sitting right in the way of all the routes from the Continent into the Atlantic), then any survivors would be severely outnumbered — that’s why the Germans used U-boats in the first place, they didn’t have much of a surface fleet. And even the largest German destroyers — the “Narviks” — didn’t have the range or survivability for an Atlantic breakout sortie.

          • I was torn between amusement (because unfortunately, yes, the Irish do like to laugh at the English getting huffy about being history) and consternation, because it’s one thing to make a story more exciting, but to deliberately re-write history to be false?

            And yes, I know the disclaimers about this is a work of fiction, but when you’re making a film based on real historical events in the real world, people do tend to think that everything in it is based on reality. They understand that there may not be a real Captain Sam Yankee Doodle Dandy, but they do think that if Captain Dandy’s character is shown finding the secret codes to defeat the Nazis, that’s how it pretty much happened (since there were secret codes found and that did help defeat the Nazis in real life).

            It’s also vaguely worrying for the rest of us if the people of the world’s current superpower only believe something happened if their fellow-citizens are involved in it, and that the idealisation of their role in the world means that to make a profit, you have to pitch a story where Americans are the heroes and saviours and everyone else is just a victim, bystander or villain.

            It’s like films such as “Independence Day” (which is a tongue-in-cheek example): oh no, a global catastrophe affecting every single nation on earth! Which is resolved by one nation acting alone and all the action, characters, plot and events are set in or come from that nation. 🙂

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says

            They understand that there may not be a real Captain Sam Yankee Doodle Dandy, but they do think that if Captain Dandy’s character is shown finding the secret codes to defeat the Nazis, that’s how it pretty much happened (since there were secret codes found and that did help defeat the Nazis in real life).

            I saw the recent Captain America movie on DVD recently, and your comment brought it to mind. It would be a real kicker if somebody went all U-571 on Captain America; things could get very weird very fast. But then, how much of people’s beliefs in general are just as out-of-it?

          • Well, Captain America is different. That’s a comic book adaptation, and Americans know that there wasn’t a real Super Soldier Serum so that a comic book hero was fighting in the Second World War (not even Nick Furey and his Howling Commandos).

            But U-571 is all Based on a True Story (with the ‘this is a work of fiction’ disclaimer in the very small print), so teenagers and younger adults and people with a fuzzy notion of history may very well believe It’s All True and that America on its own won WW2 with the French just being La Resistance and the English just being Winston Churchill.

  9. I was thinking that although the Vernal Equinox normally thought of as a Druid celebration, creation itself affirms (John 1:3) the pithy axiom that “He Is The Reason For The Season”.

  10. David Cornwell says

    My dad always loved hard candy at Christmas, and particularly the candy cane. We always had it around and he had a bit of it in his mouth continuously. And I miss him a lot.

  11. “Candy canes have been around longer than the state of Indiana.” Jeff, you’re a hoot. Now I’ve got to clean the sticky off my face…

  12. I know I said this sometime before, but the reason for the season is, as always, axial tilt. Christmas is not a season, it is a holiday/holy day with the degree of holiness dependent on the beliefs of the individual. (After all, the Puritans banned Christmas because they found no scriptural justification for it and thought it smacked of paganism and idolatry.)

    I will enjoy my Christmas eve and Christmas day. And I will enjoy my winter season.

    Ok, I’ll give you a month for Advent. But “remember the reason for the month” just sounds wrong.

    • Kerri in AK says

      “the reason for the season is, as always, axial tilt”

      Jason – you almost made me snort tea through my nose! Of COURSE! And being from the high latitudes, the Winter Solistice is a big deal. It’s all uphill from here – yay more light!

      And in keeping with making sacred what is, in this case, astronomical, you could say that the birth of Jesus is the return of light as well…but then we knew that!

    • Richard Hershberger says

      Christmas most certainly *is* a season. It runs from December 25 through January 5, hence the “Twelves Days of Christmas”. It is followed by the Feast of the Epiphany, which recalls the Wise Men presenting gifts to the baby Jesus. I personally support the fine old tradition of Twelfth Night presents in commemoration, rather than Christmas presents. My wife will have none of this. My kids would go for it, but only on the understanding that the Twelfth Night presents are in addition to rather than in place of their Christmas presents. I point out the advantage of catching after-Christmas sales, but to no avail.

      Then there is the annual Christmas Tree discussion. Many people are so confused that they apparently think it is really an Advent Tree, to be taken down sometime in the middle of Christmas: very odd.

      For a harder question, ask are the days between Epiphany and Lent a season? It depends on who you ask. Some say they are merely Ordinary Time.

  13. Jeff, as Sigmund Freud is rumored to have said:

    “Sometimes a candy cane is just a candy cane.”

  14. For me Christmas means local food. I am with my parents in California, and you have no idea what kind of craving I get for local food when I was in Washington, D.C.!! You just can’t beat California Mexican food in other areas of the country!! 😯

    • Richard Hershberger says

      I moved from California to Pennsylvania in the mid-1990s. I went for years without decent Mexican food, except for rare trips back west. It is much more available now, as a side effect of the dominance of immigrants in agricultural labor. The trick is you have to avoid the nice parts of town. As a general rule, any Mexican restaurant with nice atmosphere is mediocre at best.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Casa Garcia. Tejano restaurant in Anaheim, CA, on Lincoln just east of the 5 Freeway. Great place.

  15. In other words – Just enjoy the traditions of Christmas as the traditions of Christmas.
    Thanks Jeff.
    Some can only celebrate Christmas, they cannot Rejoice in the Christ
    Make your own traditions to enjoy with Christ as the center
    Rejoice if He is your Savior
    And remember to pray for those who sorrow at this time of year

    So remember the kind thoughts of Jeffrey of Dunn
    Then slurp on the sugar candy cane everyone

  16. Jeff – thank you, thank you. And if I may “unload” my inner Christmas Grinch here. TO all those brothers and sisters who get offended about the Happy Holidays issue. Do you understand that you are in fact giving someone a blessing when you wish them Happy Holidays? Yes, literally it means “Blessed Holy Day”!!! AND did you know that Xmas means Celebration of Christ? It is not a shortcut by atheists to eliminate Christ from the word. It comes from ICTHUS which is Greek. The first letters are of Greek words translated into English “Jesus Christ Son of God Savior.” You will see the fish symbol with these letters on bumper stickers, jewelry etc. I haven’t seen them on candy canes yet. And finally, have you ever read online or in the newspaper etc. of Jewish people being offended because no one wishes them a Happy Hanukkah? Or better yet, have you ever wished a Jewish person Happy Hanukkah? That was way before Christmas!! The Festival of Lights foreshadowing the coming of THE LIGHT.

    So thanks Jeff for letting me unload. I leave you all with this Scriptural blessing – “Blessed are those who are not offended in me.” Jesus Or if I my paraphrase – GET OVER IT!!

    Ahhhh ~ I feel better now. I think I will have a cup of hot chocolate – with a candy cane added for flavor – and SUGAR.

    • Kerri in AK says

      Adrienne – I’m with you! I have a friend on Facebook who reposted a screed about how saying Happy Holidays was somehow maligning Jesus. I tried to politely explain what you just wrote but it was ignored and instead another screed showed up instead. This person is really very nice and good hearted so I’m taking a deep breath and letting it go. There might be a bit of teeth grinding with that deep breath but no matter.

      Drat! There’s hot chocolate but no candy canes! Might have to go down to the local sweets shop tomorrow and rectify the situation…

    • And, just for the record, “Xmas” was in common use as a symbol by Christians over a thousand years ago. I am reliably informed that what looks to be an “X” to us was originally the Greek letter “chi”, the first letter in the name Christ. The expression “Xmas”, then, actually signifies Christ in Christmas …but, then, language alters with the times and it appears the original and very Christian meaning has been forfeited to the pagans …along with Halloween.

      Merry Christmas to iMonks everywhere!

  17. “Well I don’t want no Anna Zabba
    Don’t want no Almond Joy
    There ain’t nothing better
    Suitable for this boy
    Well it’s the only thing
    That can pick me up
    Better than a cup of gold
    See only a chocolate Jesus
    Can satisfy my soul”
    – Tom Waits

  18. “Why do we feel it necessary to create a meaningful symbol out of everything?”

    That’s an excellent question. In this post-Christian age when the symbols of the faith hold no universal meaning, it makes sense that individuals strive to adopt new signs and symbols. For American evangelicalism, which traces much of its heritage from non-symbolic, non-sacramental, and all-out iconoclastic traditions, it is no surprise that this hunger for symbols appears in strange apparitions, such as candy canes or Santa Claus among Dutch Calvinists. It is human to need symbols. We process complex ideas by means of symbols. Symbols are not idols. But a symbol must have universal acceptance, which individual pietism cannot accomplish. It took 2,000 years of Christian heritage and tradition to establish the symbols of the faith tossed aside by pietism and the great awakenings.