Peppermint: it flavors gum, toothpaste, Andes mints, a few candies, and not really a whole lot else—except at Christmastime, when it's the star of the show.
Find it here in Starbucks mochas, there in Frosty Trees, elsewhere in these crazy seasonal Oreos, and above all in the OG peppermint-flavored confection, candy canes.
What gives? Why is peppermint the flavor of the holiday season?
The answer probably lies with peppermint candy canes, though there are competing theories on how the iconic treat became so closely associated with the holiday. Peppermint itself—the plant—is native to the Middle East and Europe, where the stuff has been around forever, including in medicinal uses, and where a lot of U.S. candy-making techniques come from. Whither candy canes?
According to The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets, a local choirmaster in Cologne, Germany, sometime around 1670, was looking for a way to keep rowdy young people quiet while they were watching the live Nativity, and asked a local confectioner to create a special hard candy for the kids to keep busy on for a while. It was shaped like a cane—or, more to the point, a shepherd's staff.
The Companion also suggests another interpretation: "Owing to the Christian nature of the confection, it has also been suggested that the inverted candy cane was intended to form a 'J' for Jesus."
The religious symbolism may extend further to the coloring of the candy canes we see today (in their original version they were simply white): "A story from seventeenth-century England posits that the white 'body' of the candy can refers to Christ's flesh, while the thick red stripe references his blood; the three tiny red stripes symbolize the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost."
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All that religious lore making you hungry? Peppermint Ice Cream Candyland Cake to the rescue!
We pause here to note a piece on Gizmodo throwing buckets and buckets of cold water on these and other candy cane origin stories, arguing that the historical evidence for any of this is basically nonexistent. The Smithsonian agrees. It should further be noted that The Oxford Companion—The Oxford Companion!—cites About.com as one of a total of two references on the candy cane entry. That's not encouraging.
Snopes also thinks all that Christian lore amounts to so much hokum, but the site does allow "one verifiable (if indirect) religious connection associated with the modern candy cane": in 1919, a confectioner in Albany, Georgia, began manufacturing the candy, but was only able to shape it into a "J" manually, resulting in a lot of labor and a lot of broken product—until his brother-in-law, a Catholic priest, invented a machine to do the task.
And at any rate, that confectioner, Bob McCormack, is largely responsible for peppermint candy canes being a seasonal favorite today. By the middle of the 20th century his company was one of the world's largest candy cane producers.
McCormack is remembered by history; the origin of peppermint candy canes, it seems, is not.