To paraphrase Art Linkletter’s television show, newspapers print some of the darndest things. The other day my associate editor, Crystal Lindell, passed me an article from the News Journal in Delaware regarding the infamous “candy cane civil suit,” an event that happened several years ago involving the origins of candy canes and religious intolerance.
Reportedly, a teacher at a Cape Henlopen School District (southern shore of Delaware) read a story about the origins of the candy cane, which explained that candy canes were shaped like J to reflect the first letter in Jesus’ name. In addition, the red-and-white coloring represented Jesus’ blood and purity, respectively.
As it so happened, a Muslim child in the class related the story to her mother, who in turn complained to the school board about the introduction of religious beliefs in a public school. The mother asked for an apology. The board’s initial refusal to apologize about the incident quickly transformed into a two-day suspension (with pay) of the teacher after the mother complained to American Civil Liberties Union.
That suspension led to reported retaliation against the 8-year-old student, which the mother claimed was ignored by the school. The Muslim family shortly thereafter moved out of the school district after the incident, eventually filing a lawsuit against the school district and the teacher.
Earlier this month U.S. District Judge Sue Robinson ruled that there was enough evidence presented by the Muslim family to allow the civil rights lawsuit to proceed. There are many more details in the article involving the lawsuit, but I just wanted to provide you with the general overview.
When I read the article, I was a bit surprised to find that the origins of the candy cane involved the letter J in Jesus as well as the blood and purity symbolism. I had always thought that the shape represented a shepherds’ staff.
In researching the origins of the candy cane, it seems that “there are many legends and beliefs” surrounding the confection, such as the three red stripes representing the Holy Trinity, the peppermint flavor symbolizing hyssop, an Old Testament herb, and that the candy’s hardness reflected Christianity’s solid foundation.
Well, as www.snopes.com and other web sites, such as www.about.com detail, all this symbolism, excluding the shepherd’s staff reference, is incorrect. There is no historical truth to these Christmas stories about the J shape. Rather, it seems they’re good-intentioned spins on the cane’s origin by writers and clergymen. The most historical information regarding the candy cane’s creation stems from an account about a late 17th century choirmaster in Cologne who shaped plain white peppersticks in the form of a - you guessed it - a shepherd’s staff to keep his children occupied during long nativity-related ceremonies.
First, let’s make it perfectly clear, children should have the right to enjoy candy canes without any fear of reprisals, regardless of their origins. Second, there should be tolerance of all religions during the holiday season, with each tradition explained, regardless whether it has Christian, Muslim, Jewish or Afro-American roots.
I don’t know how this lawsuit will turn out, but I do hope common sense prevails. Extremism and fanaticism, regardless of its roots, only breeds intolerance as we’ve so tragically seen in Tucson.
From my perspective, it would have been wise for the teacher to research the candy cane’s origins a bit more before presenting a highly charged religious text to the children. At the same time, perhaps the parent could have brought the real origins to the attention of the teacher. Dialogue usually helps resolve misunderstandings before they become monstrous obstacles.