Jerry Seinfeld’s popular comedic bit about childhood’s ceaseless search for candy resonates with most of us because it contains what the best humor usually holds – an element of truth.
“Candy was my whole life when I was a kid,” the iconic sitcom star used to say in one of his quintessential stand-up routines. “The first 10 years of my life, I think the only clear thought I had was ‘Get candy!’”
Like Jerry, I grew up on Long Island, and there were candy stores in every town, small mom and pop businesses that carried all the sugary classics, from Hershey bars and Snickers to Rolos and Ring Pops.
Howie’s was our candy haunt, a small shop housed in an aging building along Merrick Road. It featured wide-wood planked floors, a tin roof and an old cranky proprietor who appeared to be a part-time bookie, fielding bets via the phone booth in the back corner of the store. Many of the older folks who darkened the door came for newspapers, magazines and tobacco. It was a good place to trade town gossip.
In retrospect, Howie Herman was a character from a family of characters (his father’s name was Herman Herman), but to us, he was simply our source of candy and baseball cards.
When you’re a kid, the two high seasons of candy consumption each year are Halloween and Easter, two holidays perfectly spaced out by approximately six months. Much of Baldwin used to purchase their Easter candy and baskets from Howie’s – chocolate bunnies, Cadbury Crème Eggs, Peeps and, of course, jelly beans. By late March, big bags of the multi-colored candies filled a table in the center of the store.
Interestingly enough, the jelly bean is a relatively new Easter candy, a confectionary dating back to the middle to late 1800s. A Boston candy maker named William Schrafft is credited with popularizing the treat in America after he suggested area residents send the colorful beans to the men fighting in the Civil War.
Yet, the now ubiquitous Easter favorite didn’t become a holiday staple until the 1930s. The origin of its association with the celebration of Jesus’ Resurrection is a bit clouded, but there’s a consensus it’s due to its egg-shape and the fact that eggs are a sign of rebirth.
Regardless, the small jelly bean is big business. Americans will consume over 16 billion of them on Easter Sunday alone, enough that if laid out next to one another would ring the earth three times around.
Though already synonymous with the sacred Christian feast of Jesus’ miraculous return to life, the popularity of the jelly bean skyrocketed exponentially in 1980 with the election of President Ronald Reagan. Reagan’s penchant for the candy was first reported in the late 1960s after observers began noticing jars of them all over the California state capital.
“State government in California runs on jelly beans,” he told a New York Times reporter. “If we ever run out of jelly beans, well, I don't know how this state would function.”
When Governor Reagan became president, the Herman Goelitz Candy Company, a.k.a Jelly Bellys (the chief executive’s choice of jelly bean), saw its sales double to $18 million in just one year’s time. The national press exposure and the White House’s order of 720 bags per month helped fuel the jelly bean frenzy.
But why did the movie actor turned politician take such a shine to the candy in the first place?
Like so many of his era, Ronald Reagan was a regular user of tobacco, pipe smoking to be exact. The future 40th president would draw and puff on his pipe as he memorized lines in movie scripts. He found the pastime relaxing. Beginning in the late 1930s, Reagan was also the face of several cigarette brands, including Chesterfield cigarettes.
It’s almost shocking to see the advertisements today, the Gipper’s friendly and familiar smile hocking the tobacco’s superiority, even suggesting that the Chesterfield’s brand promised to deliver the “merriest Christmas any smoker can have.”
Truth be told, soon after signing on with Chesterfield, Ronald Reagan was struggling to kick the habit, most especially after a 1952 Reader’s Digest article titled, “Cancer by the Carton,” laid out the health dangers of smoking.
The popular news curator wasn’t the first to report the correlation between smoking and cancer, but with its sales exceeded only by the Bible, Reader’s Digest enjoyed an oversized influence in America – and the actor took notice.
In response, Reagan vowed to break the habit and jelly beans became the actor’s substitute vice as he weaned himself off his daily pipes. Every time he would get a craving to light up, he’d grab a handful of the candy from jars and bowls sprinkled around his workspace. “Once you get on jelly beans, you never outgrow them,” he said. In time, the smoking habit was broken – and a love affair with jelly beans began.
There’s a good chance you had a few jelly beans today, and with over 50 different flavors, there’s no shortage of variety from which to choose. But despite its close association with Easter, there’s really nothing spiritual about candy, of course, though many, including my wife, may jokingly consider chocolate a tiny hint of Heaven.
Yet, for Christians, Easter is the day of all days, the commemoration of Jesus’ defeat of death – and so I think it’s most appropriate and fitting that the future president broke a bad habit with the help of a popular Easter treat.
That’s because Jesus’ crucifixion on Friday and Resurrection on Sunday is sorrow and grief transformed to joy and celebration. It is God doing the impossible and demonstrating His infinite power in the process.
Kicking a bad habit or addiction is extremely difficult, yet it’s child’s play as compared to conquering the grave. Jesus’ death and Resurrection are designed to show us that with God, nothing is impossible, especially on Easter morning when we triumphantly sing the words of the hymnist, “Thine be the glory, risen conquering son; endless is the victory, thou over death has won.”
He is Risen. He is risen, indeed.