The red-and-white-striped, sugary candy known as the candy cane can be found everywhere during the Christmas season. It's as much an ornament as it is a confection, and people munch these treats and decorate with them, scarcely giving a thought to just where candy canes came from in the first place.
Candy canes didn't appear until at least the latter part of the 17th century, by which time Europe was almost entirely Christian. By then, people who were not Christians would have been the ones in need of this form of "secret handshake"!
When the practice of using Christmas trees to celebrate Christmas became popular in Europe the people there began making decorations for their trees. Many of the decorations were food items including cookies and candy. The predecessor of our modern candy cane appeared at about this time in the seventeenth century. These were straight, white sticks of sugar candy.
Pageants of living crèches were a common part of the Christmas celebration at the Cologne Cathedral. In about 1670, the choirmaster there had sticks of candy bent into the shape of a shepherd’s crook and passed them out to children who attended the ceremonies. This became a popular tradition, and eventually the practice of passing out the sugar canes at living crèches ceremonies spread throughout Europe.
The use of candy canes on Christmas trees made its way to America by the 1800’s, however during this time they were still pure white. They are represented this way on Christmas cards made before 1900, and it is not until the early 20th century that they appear with their familiar red stripes.
Claims made about the candy's religious symbolism have become increasingly widespread as religious leaders have assured their congregations that these mythologies are factual, the press has published these claims as authoritative answers to readers' inquiries about the confection's meaning, and several lavishly illustrated books purport to tell the "true story" of the candy cane's origins.
When you examine the claims of much of these recent popular treatments, you come away with little more than bits of folklore being pressed for more validity than they were meant to have.