Candy canes and the manufacture of evangelical resentment

It’s late June, but candy canes are in the news. The U.S. Supreme Court last week let stand a lower appeals court ruling in the “Christian candy cane” case.

That’s the nickname given to Morgan v. Swanson, a case involving the Plano Independent School District and the parents of a child instructed to proselytize his classmates by passing out evangelistic tracts about candy canes. Chris Lisee has a good summary of the case, which involves the fascinating intersection of several competing First Amendment claims — free speech, free exercise and no establishment.

But this post isn’t about that case or those legal and constitutional questions. This post is about the evangelical urban legend at the heart of the case.

That legend has to do with candy canes — with their purported Christian symbolism and how that symbolism has been enlisted in the culture wars and in evangelicals’ struggle for religious hegemony and privilege.

Urban legends are not true stories. That, in itself, does not make them remarkable. Many wonderful stories are not true stories. Such untrue stories can be grouped, broadly, into two categories. Some untrue stories are fiction. And some untrue stories are lies.

That distinction matters when it comes to urban legends because this particular form of untrue story draws its power from being told and retold as though true. To be effective, an urban legend has to be presented as real — as something that really happened. And it must be heard and absorbed as real. That’s what makes them worth retelling and spreading like a virus.

In many cases, this pretense is as harmless as it is in any other fiction. Presenting an untrue story as true is often simply an effective storytelling tactic. This is true of many urban legends that function mainly as jokes. And it is true of most urban legends that function mainly as ghost stories. These sorts of urban legends are basically just fiction. The pretense of telling such untrue stories as though true serves the storyteller’s agenda, which is to elicit delight (laughter or chills, either way).

But in other cases this pretense is harmful because in those cases the storyteller has some other agenda. These other kinds of urban legends can’t really be considered fiction — they’re more like simple lies. Such stories are not told in the hopes of eliciting delight, but usually in order to create or to foster a sense of aggrieved victimhood and resentment.

Such stories, in other words, are propaganda. They are about sowing division, heightening the antipathy between groups or factions. They are about creating and enforcing and sustaining tribal conflict.

When a storyteller embellishes a good ghost story, those embellishments are acts of fiction. The storyteller fabricates — adding local details and inventing authoritative-sounding confirmations from supposed media reports or friend-of-a-friend testimonies. Such fictional details and embellishments make the story more compelling, recasting it as a “true story.” But it’s still basically just fiction.

But when a storyteller embellishes a propagandistic urban legend, those fabrications are something else. The process is similar — fabricating details, local touches, invented attributions — but the purpose is different. The storyteller isn’t serving the story, but is serving some other agenda. That’s not fiction. It’s more like simply lying. Where fictional urban legends aim to delight, these stories aim to deceive.

The Christian candy cane story is an intriguing example of this kind of agenda-driven, propagandistic urban legend.

It didn’t start out that way. It began as something innocent and sincere — as a simple object lesson or illustration. But while that object lesson served its intended purpose well enough, it wasn’t aggressive enough to function effectively as tribal propaganda for the culture wars. To serve that function it had to be changed, embellished, repurposed and fortified with lies.

The original basic idea was rather tame. Christmas is both a cultural festival and a Christian religious holiday. It’s easy to lose track of that religious holiday amidst all the trappings of parties, decorations and gift-giving. That’s particularly true for young children who can be swept away by the awesome prospect of getting lots of cool presents. Thus fretting about the “commercialization” of Christmas has become a standard part of the holiday for many Christians who are always seeking new ways to remind themselves of, as the cliché says, “the reason for the season.”

So consider the humble candy cane. It’s not particularly beloved as a confection, but come December it’s inescapable as part of our holiday decorating.

It’s a simple thing to enlist this ubiquitous symbol as a reminder of “the reason for the season.” Candy canes are shaped like shepherds’ crooks — a reminder of the shepherds watching their flocks by night in Bethlehem, and of the Good Shepherd himself. Turn a candy cane upside down and it looks kind of like the letter “J” — for Jesus. It has red and white stripes, allowing us to remember the words of Isaiah — both “though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow” (1:18) and “with his stripes we are healed” (53:5).

Maybe that’s not terribly profound, but it’s an effective “whenever you see this, remember this” type of lesson. I remember hearing some version of this as a child in Sunday school. I think our teacher had seen our young eyes ablaze with the Christmas-greed of present-hungry children and thus wanted to remind us again of the “reason for the season.” (At the end of class, she gave each of us one of those little candy canes that come in a chain of plastic sleeves, at which point our greed — rekindled by the prospect of free candy* — probably convinced her that her lesson had been useless.)

There’s a version of this candy cane object lesson at the website from which I borrowed the artwork above. It’s mainly still just an illustration in this form, but little embellishments have begun to creep in, such as the condemnation of “impostor” variations and the odd (and misleading) business about peppermint and “hyssop.”

But to see the fully transformed urban legend of the Christian candy cane go to the Snopes page, where mythbuster Barbara Mikkelson shares a basic version of the story. The gist of it is the same as the object lesson from my Sunday school class, but here the claim is embellished as history. This is what a real candy cane really means — what it was intended to mean by the (good, devout Christian) “candymaker in Indiana” who invented it to be “a witness” to “the birth, ministry, and death of Jesus Christ.”

This history is pure fabrication, but it’s still not far from the basically fictional impulse of the “true story” pretense of urban legends. As Mikkelson writes:

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 have 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. This is charming folklore at best. …

At best it’s charming folklore. But at worst that folklore is employed to serve an agenda. Here is Mikkelson on how this story is being used:

It has become fashionable of late to claim that the candy cane was not only designed to be fraught with Christian symbolism, but that it was created as a means by which persecuted Christians could furtively identify each other. …

There it is: “persecuted Christians.” And we Christians are still being persecuted by those who would deny the true, legitimate reason for the season by saying “Happy Holidays” or by passing out candy canes with the wrong number of stripes or without the biblically correct hyssop flavor.

The Christian candy cane legend has come to serve the same purpose as all that silly demagoguery about the “War on Christmas.” It is told and retold to foster a sense of grievance and victimhood. The Sunday school teacher’s object lesson wanted us to see candy canes and to remember Jesus’ birth. The Christian candy cane legend wants us to see candy canes and remember that the culture used to be ours, that it rightfully belongs to us, and that it is being unjustly taken away from us by secular humanists, activist judges, liberals, academics, evolutionists, radical feminists and homosexuals.

Richard Beck cites James Davison Hunter on this “culture of victimhood,” from Hunter’s book To Change the World:

The sense of injury is the key. Over time, the perceived injustice becomes central to the person’s and the group’s identity. Understanding themselves to be victimized is not a passive acknowledgement but a belief that can be cultivated. Accounts of atrocity become a crucial subplot of the narrative, evidence that reinforces the sense that they have been or will be wronged or victimized. Cultivating the fear of further injury becomes a strategy for generating solidarity within the group and mobilizing the group to action. It is often useful at such times to exaggerate or magnify the threat. The injury or threat thereof is so central to the identity and dynamics of the group that to give it up is to give up a critical part of whom they understand themselves to be. Thus, instead of letting go, the sense of injury continues to get deeper.

In this logic, it is only natural that wrongs need to be righted. And so it is, then, that the injury — real or perceived — leads the aggrieved to accuse, blame, vilify, and then seek revenge on those whom they see as responsible. The adversary has to be shown for who they are, exposed for their corruption, and put in their place. [This] ressentiment, then, is expressed as a discourse of negation; the condemnation and denigration of enemies in the effort to subjugate and dominate those who are culpable.

Hunter here I think helps to explain one of the most puzzling aspects of American culture. In America, resentment always seems to flow backwards. The powerful resent the powerless. The haves resent the have-nots. Whites resent blacks. Men resent women. The healthy resent the sick. The majority resents the minority. The privileged resent the marginalized.

It’s not easy to make resentment flow backwards. It takes work. It takes design, intent, choice and effort.

And it takes stories. Lots of stories.

- – - – - – - – - – - -

* But not quite real candy.

Candy canes occupy an awkward place in the candy taxonomy. They’re minty — which tends to put them more toward the adult end of the candy spectrum. Yet they’re also unwieldy and inconvenient in a way that only children’s candy should be. (This is why there aren’t mint-flavored lollipops.)

Candy canes are a bit too sugary-sweet to appeal to those seeking a breath-freshener. If you’ve just had coffee or garlicky pizza and you’re heading into a business meeting, then you’ll reach for Altoids or Tic Tacs, not for a candy cane. This would be true even if they came in a more convenient, Altoid-sized shape (which they should – just as McDonald’s should have candy-cane colored versions of the Shamrock Shake every December).

And while they’re a bit too candy-ish to serve as proper mints, they’re also a bit too minty to serve as proper candy. Ask a small child if they’d like a piece of candy (not in a creepy way, please), and then, when they say yes, offer them a Tic Tac or an Altoid and witness their disappointment. This is why we don’t give out minty candies to Trick-or-Treaters at Halloween.

  • http://baroncognito.livejournal.com/ Baroncognito

    People hand out Junior Mints and York Peppermint patties at Halloween.

  • http://www.dylanstafne.blogspot.com Dylan Stafne

    That’s one of the most insightful footnotes I’ve ever read.

  • J_

    *Many wonderful stories are not true stories.*

    You yourself are on record as saying otherwise, Fred:

    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/slacktivist/2012/03/19/trying-to-change-the-world-with-lies/

  • redsixwing

    People hand out Junior Mints and York Peppermint patties at Halloween.

    I need to trick-or-treat more. :)

    I must’ve been an odd child. I coveted Tic Tacs (orange, please) and Altoids (original, please) over almost any other form of candy. The only one better was a Werther’s butterscotch, which I hear is Old People candy.

    Candy canes, thus, are a big treat because they’re one of the best easily-available minty candies. SixSpouse buys a case of them every year, then slowly doles them out over the course of the next ten months, until they come available again – at which point we eat enough candy canes to make our dentist despair (all the way to the bank).

    They are really unwieldy, though, and every time I see one I think of the sort of seasonal resentment that makes me think people are going to see me nomming my latest pepperminty treat and think they know what religion I follow and probably my views on the end of the world, which is just… not true at all.

    I just want my peppermint, and the rest of it can go hang.

  • PJ Evans

    I’ve liked mint-flavored candies since I was a kid. Some of them I still prefer to chocolate.

    But I agree that the Christianist story about candy canes being a signal to persecuted co-religionists is a straight-up lie.

  • Vermic

    When kids look at the stripes on a candy cane, they’re supposed to think about Jesus’ whip marks? Man, screw the jerks who want to spoil everything halfway decent.

  • J_

    Anyway, I’m perfectly willing to let Christians have candy canes. Because canes are PISS. POOR. Candy. Acrid and, mysteriously, at once way bland and too-sweet. Leaves an aftertaste that’s minty for like 30 seconds, then dry and bitter for 3 hours. Know what’s better candy than a candy cane? Fucking anything.

    It’s the fucking mustard seed all over again: Yeah, lay claim to a noxious weed with a rampant root system that chokes out all other plant life and, if not uprooted on sight, can destroy a garden. Pretty good analogy for Christianity, I’d say.

  • Jessica_R

    I mainly love candy canes crushed and mixed into peppermint bark. Tell me *that* was invented by Jesus and I’ll probably believe you. 

  • Jessica_R

    And as for what looking for offense will get you, this could be a poe, it almost has to be, but then again… 
    http://www.towleroad.com/2012/06/christian-wants-buckeye-removed-as-ohio-state-symbol-because-its-a-bisexual-tree.html

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Ed-Gruberman/1282184664 Ed Gruberman

     If you’ve just had coffee or garlicky pizza and you’re heading into a
    business meeting, then you’ll reach for Altoids or Tic Tacs, not for a
    candy cane. This would be true even if they came in a more convenient,
    Altoid-sized shape (which they should

    But they do come in a more convenient
    Altoid-sized shape

    http://lollypopsandcandies.com/images/b_hc_smints_b.jpg

  • mud man

    The powerful resent the powerless.

    It’s like swimming with your boots on; if you stop paddling, you sink.  All those lazy folks just don’t understand what a struggle it is. A very grouchy business.

  • Eamon Knight

    Candy canes as a secret Christian sign? I thought that was supposed to be the stylized fish icon.  But I guess that’s now too well known, so those poor persecuted Christians had to find another secret handshake. Too bad the internet has already spilled the beans on the new one ;-).

  • Magic_Cracker

    Huh. And here I thought candy canes were nothing more than schoolyard shivs. At least, that’s why they banned them from my elementary school when a kid licked one to a point and stabbed* another kid with it — but now I know that young sociopath-in-training was really a Christian Avenger sticking it to the (secular) Man!

    *It didn’t break the skin, but the teachers took the point.

  • Magic_Cracker

    I like to stir my hot chocolate with a candy cane. Instant choco-mint-gasm!

  • Nequam

    I’ve heard of people using the straight ones as straws, especially (oddly enough) stabbed into an orange (presumably the one that adds some token weight to the Christmas stocking).

  • ReverendRef

    Man . . . Ordinary Time just got underway and now I’ve got to think about Christmas???  Seriously, the Christian right needs to give it a rest.  Besides, they should be reminded that persecution is part of the gig; if they can’t take the heat, get out.

  • http://jesustheram.blogspot.com/ Mr. Heartland

    Yes, and licking a candy cane is symbolicaly an act of licking the blood off of  the mangled back of our sweaty man-god.  Minty fresh!  

  • aunursa

    It is indeed a hoax, or rather, satire.

    We just got off the phone with 67-year-old Jim Flechtner of Findlay, who acknowledges having “something of a local reputation” for his satirical notes to the newspaper.
    “I quite often write letters on the issues of religion, evolution and homosexuality,” he told us.

  • http://twitter.com/jclor jclor

    You’ve misread the previous post.  Fred was discussing untrue stories that imply or make the claim of truth, like Mike Daisy’s false FoxConn testimony or the candy cane propaganda above.  

    The wonderful but not true stories he refers to are those that make no claim toward truth, in which the fiction is self-evident.  Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch Who Stole Christmas is not a true story, but it is wonderful and has great value as both entertainment and parable.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    I used to like candy canes when I was younger, but these days? Not so much.

    As for the people who seem to want to find reasons to be offended? Talk about how they project!

    Hands up anyone who has seem some blowhard jerk-ass accusing minorities or women of ~looking for reasons to be offended~ while pompously insisting that ~we’re all equal now~ or worse yet, that really, the ~minority now holds the power~! (which is only true if we consider the 1% of white people who hold disproportionate economic and social power)

    And yet these blowhards remain blissfully unaware of how they seize on even minor things to insist there’s a “war on Christmas”, a “war on Christianity”, et cetera ad nauseam. We even get a little bit of it in Canada when someone thinks they’ve brilliantly discovered the omgsecret of XMAS as opposed to CHRISTMAS, trufax.

    (*sigh*)

  • histrogeek

    I’ve always hated candy canes, except for the sculpting possibilities with sharp points or making one part thinner than another. Taste wise, blech. And they’re so messy and sticky, yuck.
    I think I’d heard of the shepherd’s crook explanation, but never in any serious way. It is an obvious link. But a secret symbol for persecuted Christians? WTF? Even as a little kid I suspect there would have been dissonance on that. You’d have to have no knowledge of history at all. Once you get some sense (even within a thousand years) of when Christmas was celebrated, when Christians were persecuted, and when anything like candy was around, things stop adding up.
    My favorite weird attempt to get the “reason for the season” was some company hawking a giant cross to hang on a Xmas tree. Now that was strange. What was wrong with a creche?

  • http://guy-who-reads.blogspot.com/ Mike Timonin

    I like to put a candy cane into my eggnog, or gingerale, or whiskey. I prefer the cherry ones in my nog, though.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jon.maki Jon Maki

    I’ve always liked mint of pretty much any kind (especially when paired with chocolate).

    (In fact, I’m eating some – sugar free – York Peppermint Patties even as I type this, and I have to remind myself that I can’t eat too many, as too much sugar alcohol can lead to…unpleasantness.)

    One of the things I always looked forward to about Christmas – apart from the presents, of course – were these giant candy canes we always got in in our stockings.

    Well, you can’t really call them candy canes, as they didn’t have the classic crooked shape.  They were more like candy clubs.

    Seriously, the things were huge.  Getting all the way through one of them took a lot of patience and a strong committment, and was a task that could frequently take you well into the new year to complete.

  • http://www.blogger.com/home?pli=1 Coleslaw

    I think the writer meant “flouting” the Holy Bible, although if its not a Poe, probably does a lot of flaunting of it, too.

  • LL

    Why am I not surprised religious people are trying to ruin candy for everyone? 

  • Amaryllis

     If you believe the old novels, peppermint candies used to be given to kids to keep them quiet in church:

    Peppermints always seem to me such a religious
    sort of candy — I suppose because when I was a little girl
    Grandmother Gordon always gave them to me in church. Once I
    asked, referring to the smell of peppermints, `Is that the odor
    of sanctity?’

    - L. M. Montgomery, Anne of the Island

    In fact, a quick Google of “peppermints in church” seems to indicate that the tradition is neither confined to small children, nor dead. So maybe there’s a predisposition to accept candy canes as “a religious sort of candy” even before the embellishments.

    It’s a simple thing to enlist this ubiquitous symbol as a reminder of “the reason for the season.”
    Yeah, it’s a later version of the same impulse that created the Legend of the Dogwood  and all those holly-tree carols.

    But those are identified up front as legend and poetry, just aids to meditation, Nobody ever said that “a gardener in Indiana” bred a cross-shaped flower or a red-berried holly as a secret sign.

    Although, come to think of it, I have heard that the verses of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” have a secret Catholic meaning which preserved Catholic devotions during the bad old days of Queen Elizabeth and King James. I have my doubts.

    And then, what about pretzels? Invented by monks to copy the look of arms crossed in prayer? Or not?

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Charity-Brighton/100002974813787 Charity Brighton

     I think s/he also misread this one, which actually calls out the difference between ‘untruth-as-entertaining-fiction’ and ‘untruth-as-propaganda’.

  • seniorcit

    People hand out Junior Mints and York Peppermint patties at Halloween.

    Yeah, but they aren’t popular.  My kids wouldn’t eat them and gave them to me.

  • Vermic

    Candy canes normally don’t do much for me, but one year I was at a Christmas festival and the local candy store was selling them fresh-made — still warm and a little soft — and hoo boy, they ruled. Especially on a cold winter’s night.

  • ReverendRef

     Although, come to think of it, I have heard that the verses of “The
    Twelve Days of Christmas” have a secret Catholic meaning which preserved
    Catholic devotions during the bad old days of Queen Elizabeth and King
    James. I have my doubts.

    You do well to doubt.  Since Anglican and Catholic theology are really very similar, there’s no reason to hide secret meanings in a song.  Start with the “three French Hens” as being a secret symbol of the Trinity.  Anglicans weren’t attacking Catholics for believing in the Trinity.

    So it’s one of those things that got co-opted (I think) by the fundamentalists to show how they held onto the true faith and were being persecuted over it.  Sort of early RTC-ism I think.

  • glendanowakowsk

    My mom used to make a mean wintergreen cake (until she could no longer find the wintergreen extract).   Make batter for a white cake and divide it in halves.  Leave one as is, and to the other add wintergreen extract and red food coloring until it was pink.  Drop the batter into the pan in alternating globs and then run a knife through to marble it.  Bake, cool and frost with chocolate frosting.  It was a nice alternative to peppermint.

  • Rhubarbarian82

     I usually keep a ziploc bag of crushed candy canes to top (the whipped cream on top of my) hot chocolate with. It’s even better if you add a shot of peppermint schnapps first. Minty chocolate deliciousness!

    I’ve never used a cane as a stirrer, though, that sounds pretty great also.

  • http://guy-who-reads.blogspot.com/ Mike Timonin

    A quick Google finds wintergreen extract here: 
    http://www.silvercloudestates.com/product/Pure-Wintergreen-Extract-306.aspx

    Bit pricey, you’ll have to decide for yourself if the cake is worth it.

  • Matri

    You’d have to have no knowledge of history at all. Once you get some
    sense (even within a thousand years) of when Christmas was celebrated,
    when Christians were persecuted, and when anything like candy was
    around, things stop adding up.

    Bingo. Why do you think they started the War On Education in the first place? The more knowledgeable the public, the faster they lose their power.

  • PJ Evans

     You can still find wintergreen extract. Try the Big A, for one.

  • AnonymousSam

    Mmm, oh yes. Especially if the hot chocolate has been treated with some peppermint schnapps already. :D

  • hidden_urchin

    And Real True Candy Canes have exactly 13 stripes to further remind us of the founding of The Greatest Country on Earth which is God’s Own Nation.  Any candy canes without 13 stripes are subversive, commie candy canes and therefore sent by Satan to deceive children.

  • glendanowakowsk

    Thanks, good to know.

    I don’t think my mom bakes much anymore, but maybe someday I’ll be in a position for buying spendy baking ingredients.

    That’s one cool site, though.

  • http://guy-who-reads.blogspot.com/ Mike Timonin

    Isn’t it though? I love sites like that – I can imagine spending money on such exotic stuff!

  • thatotherjean

     Peppermint sticks to use as straws in oranges have to be porous, though, not like the usual Christmas candy cane, or you can’t suck up the juice as you squeeze the orange.  They’re excellent in lemons, too—sort of mint-flavored lemonade.

  • Jessica_R

    That’s a great tip, and I should probably get a Starbucks named after me for how many peppermint hot chocolates I buy there during the winter. 

  • http://blog.trenchcoatsoft.com Ross

    (In fact, I’m eating some – sugar free – York Peppermint Patties even as I type this, and I have to remind myself that I can’t eat too many, as too much sugar alcohol can lead to…unpleasantness.)

    Seriously. Putting sugar alcohol in york peppermint patties is a recipe for fail. They should just plaster a picture of Admiral Akbar on the front and be done with it.

    Also, the sugar-free ones don’t sound quite right. (I’m possibly the only person who has this weird little foible: I love the sound a York Peppermint Patty makes when you snap one in half)

  • Tricksterson

    I thought that was what pens were for?

  • Tricksterson

    And lwt’s not ignore the Freudian implications either.

  • Tricksterson

    Oksay, I think this is a game that everyone can play.  What are religious implications, Christian or otherwise of your favorite candy?  Snickers for instance?

  • hapax

     

    (I’m possibly the only person who has this weird little foible: I love
    the sound a York Peppermint Patty makes when you snap one in half)

    I *know* that I’m not the only person who is enchanted by the spark made by biting Wint-o-green Lifesavers.

  • pharoute

    Stripes in a candy cane symbolizing the scouraging of Christ, wha? It’s Christmas not Easter! Get your pagan seasonal holidays co-opted by early Christians right people.

    And it’s hook shaped so it will hang from the branches.

  • Keulan

    I never heard that urban legend before, but it doesn’t surprise me that some of the “persecuted” Christian majority in this country would use something as silly as candy canes in their “War on Christmas” nonsense. There are plenty of other really silly things those types get worked up about to support their persecution complex.

    I’ve never really liked mint-flavored candy. Can’t stand the taste for some reason.

  • Joshua

    You’d have to have no knowledge of history at all. Once you get some sense (even within a thousand years) of when Christmas was celebrated, when Christians were persecuted, and when anything like candy was around, things stop adding up.

    Let’s not forget the letter J, brought to you by Sesame St, not Latin or Greek.

    OK, Wikipedia tells me it’s actually brought to us by Middle High German and some Italian guy named Trissino.

  • EllieMurasaki

    What are religious implications, Christian or otherwise of your favorite candy?

    Dunno about religious, and I won’t say it’s my favorite, but:  http://qdb.dreamwidth.net/dw/46 (nsfw)


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