You'll never believe it.
The Christmas season means carols on the radio, stockings hung by the chimney with care, and those little candy canes absolutely everywhere. It’s hard to escape the red-and-white striped treats that are handed out everywhere from the bank to the grocery story to Santaland where elves hand them to your eager kids. But have you ever stopped to wonder where candy canes came from? The truth of the matter is that no one actually knows.
There’s one story that says an Indiana candy maker came up with the idea of a striped cane to remind children about Jesus—the white stripes represented Jesus, the red his blood, and the cane shape is actually his initial “J”. While that has been widely discounted, the true origin is still a mystery. According to The Smithsonian, they may have been created by a choirmaster who bent the candy to look like the Good Shepherd’s crook to remind kids of the nativity. The National Confectioners Association credits August Imgard, a German immigrant who may have also brought the first Christmas tree to Ohio in 1847, decorating it with candy canes. Others say it was Bob McCormack and his brother-in-law, a Catholic priest and tinkerer, who created the machine that made the perfect red-and-white striped peppermint canes. McCormack’s candy know-how and his brother-in-law’s machine made it easy to make candy canes and soon they were a regular part of the Christmas season.
It’s not just candy canes that have a secret history. Many of our favorite Christmas traditions have surprising origins. For instance, gingerbread cookies trace their roots back to 2400BC when someone in ancient Greece wrote down a recipe. Gingerbread cookies were staples at medieval fairs across Europe and Queen Elizabeth 1 herself may have come up with the idea of decorating them, according to PBS.
The tradition of kissing under the mistletoe dates back to the time of the Druids who saw the winter-blooming plant as a sign of continuing life and vivacity. By the 18th century it had been fully incorporated into Christmas, according to History. As for decking the halls with boughs of holly, that dates back as far as early Christian times, when, according to How Stuff Works, they would mark Christmas Eve on their calendars “as templa exornatur, meaning ‘churches are decked’”. They opted for holly because the red berry and thorns reminded them of the crucifixion of Jesus. From there it became a Christmas tradition.
The Smithsonian says that hanging stockings by the chimney dates back to the times of Saint Nicholas (that’s 270 AD) who helped a widowed father in his time of need, by filling his daughters’ drying stockings with gold coins. The tradition almost died out in the mid-1800s though, when according to the New York Times, the Christmas trees became the Christmas tradition of choice. Soon, though, people realized they could have both a stocking and a tree and the custom continued.
WATCH: Candy Cane Pancakes
As for the gifts that pile up under the tree and in those stockings, according to A Christmas Testimony, the tradition of gift giving on Christmas started with the Wise Men who gave Jesus frankincense, gold, and myrrh when he was born.
Keep these meanings in mind as you open presents next to your Christmas tree—or share them over eggnog at the next cookie swap.