Christmas Candy Time Machine

Last year, consumers spent almost $1.5 billion on candy during the holiday season. For centuries, people have liked to eat candy when they see Christmas approaching. Consider this passage from Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House on the Prairie:

"But Ma asked if they were sure the stockings were empty. Then they put their hands down inside them, to make sure. And in the very toe of each stocking was a shining bright, new penny! They had never even thought of such a thing as having a penny. Think of having a whole penny for your very own. Think of having a cup and a cake and a stick of candy and a penny. There never had been such a Christmas."

Whoo! A cup and a cake and a candy stick and a penny? Those pioneer girls knew how to party. In a later book in the series, On the Banks of Plum Creek, Laura's pa gets lost in a blizzard and survives by burrowing into a snowbank and eating the Christmas candy. So important is the candy to the holiday celebration that he apologizes for eating it when he reappears after being thought dead! And the kids think about it for a moment before deciding to forgive him for doing it. Who can blame them.

People eat candy year-round of course, peaking at the holidays. According to Susan Whiteside, VP of communications for the National Confectioners Association, the "big four" candy holidays—Halloween, Easter, Christmas, and Valentine's Day—account for a quarter of annual candy spending.

But the kinds of candy people buy and eat during the winter holidays tends to be quite different from the candy of other holidays. Not only are the visual motifs distinct (trees and stars versus bunnies or hearts), the wrappings and flavors are different too.

Of course the flavor people associate most strongly with Christmas is mint, and the minty treat that most typifies Christmas is the candy cane. If you take a peek on any random box of canes you buy in a grocery store, you'll probably see the name Spangler. The Bryan, Ohio, family-owned confectionary pumps out 2.7 million candy canes every day. By the way, not all of those are mint: Weird flavors have crept into the candy cane section, and Spangler manufactures those too, under the names of Jelly Belly, Shrek, Smarties, Cinnabon (kill me now), and Sour Punch.

Speaking of those sour candy canes, they're a real nonfavorite of Cybele May, the reviewstress who runs Candy Blog. "The holidays are a time of soothing; you don't need to be shocked," she says. She favors the Life Savers Candy Canes ("nice true pure flavors") for candy cane nontraditionalists, and for mint-lovers recommends the recently rereleased Brach's Christmas mint nougats, with a pretty green tree in the middle of each, and Dove's peppermint bark Promises, which is made with real-cocoa-butter white chocolate.

Candy that comes in festive foil wrapping is another traditional holiday favorite. Silver-foiled Hershey's were one of the earliest shiny Christmas candies, and they began appearing in red, green, and silver foil wrappings during the Christmas season of 1962.

Now there isn't a candy brand that doesn't offer some type of holiday spin-off: Reese's foil-wrapped mini cups, say, or tiny, shiny Snickers. All these candies are in danger of crowding the wares of holiday novelty company RM Palmer off the shelves. Palmer is the largest Easter bunny maker in the United States, but it also makes Christmas products like foil-wrapped Smilin' Santas. Palmer was one of the few companies to really delve into foil packaging. Candy Blog's May notes that Palmer's chocolate is now universally regarded as terrible.

Other classic favorites are losing their luster, too. Ribbon candy "just tastes like sugar," says the National Confectioners Association's Whiteside, as does rock candy. Though sugar plums were immortalized in 'Twas the Night Before Christmas, barely anyone even knows what one is anymore (traditionally dried fruit flavored with spices and rolled in sugar and/or coconut). Even if you did know, who'd want to eat that? And gumdrops, such a part of holiday trappings that they are included in the Nutcracker ballet, seem to be all but missing from holiday candy sections today. What, did everyone have a traumatic experience where they ate a clove- or wintergreen-flavored one?

"I had a dish of gumdrops out recently and a little girl came up, excited to eat the candy," Whiteside says. "Then she looked at me suspiciously and asked, 'Hey, is this spicy?'"

Some holiday experiences just never get old.

Images of striped candy canes from Shutterstock