'J' Shape Is For Jesus: School's Candy Cane Ban Causes Uproar

ELK HORN, NE — This might frost you: An elementary school principal in Nebraska banned candy canes, along with other items associated with Christmas, reasoning the minty, sugary treats shape a “J” for Jesus when turned upside down. Jennifer Sinclair, the principal at Elkhorn Public Schools’ Manchester Elementary School, also said in her memo that the red in the candy cane “is for the blood of Christ, and the white is a symbol of his resurrection.”

School officials in Elk Horn, which is located about 25 miles west of Omaha, said in a statement that it has since put Sinclair on administrative leave after public backlash over the holiday policies. The dictum also banned Elf on a shelf, reindeer, and the traditional Christmas colors of red and green.

Sinclair signed the memo “the (Unintentional) Grinch who stole Christmas (from Manchester).”

Sinclair reminded educators in her memo to be “inclusive and culturally sensitive,” according to an account by USA Today.

She said she comes “from a place that Christmas and the like are not allowed in schools” and that “over the years in my educational career, this has evolved into the expectation for all educators.”

The policies have since been reversed.

The Liberty Counsel, a nonprofit religious freedom group that promotes lawsuits related to evangelical values, said in a “demand letter” to Elkhorn Superintendent Bary Habrock that Sinclair “appears to have conflated her own values and preferences with the law.”

“The First Amendment simply does not require elimination of all Christmas symbols — religious and secular — in a misguided attempt to be ‘inclusive’ by eliminating all traditional elements of a federally- and state-recognized holiday,” the letter continued. ” The effort to comprehensively eliminate Christmas symbols is Orwellian.”

Mat Staver, who founded the Liberty Counsel with his wife, Anita, in 1989, said he is pleased that the school district reversed the “unconstitutional directive and required compliance with the Constitution,” according to a news release.

“Nothing prohibits public schools from teaching objectively about Christmas or other holidays with religious significance, from displaying religious and secular Christmas symbols side-by-side or singing sacred and secular Christmas songs together,” the release said. “The First Amendment prohibits censorship based on religious viewpoint. This outrageous three-page memo by Principal Sinclair was not based on ignorance of the law but hatred toward Christianity and Christmas. …”

The school district did not comment on Sinclair’s future with the district, but the Liberty Counsel said it’s goal wasn’t to see her fired.

How Did All This Start, Anyway?

The notion of religious symbolism in candy canes has been around for years but don’t have any basis in fact, according to the fact-checking website Snopes. The stories are “charming folklore, but one should not lose sight of the fact that such stories of the candy cane’s origins are, like Santa Claus, myths and not ‘true stories,’ ” Snopes said.

Among the debunked legends:

Candy canes were by European Christians during a time of religious persecution to identify themselves. But that story, Snopes said, “is directly contradicted by history.”

“Even questionable accounts regarding the origins of the candy cane place its origins no earlier the latter part of the 17th century, at which time Europe was almost entirely Christian,” the site said. “By then, only people who were not Christians would have been the ones in need of this form of ‘secret handshake’! Like the apocryphal tale of the ‘true’ meaning of the song ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas,’ this claim is a modern day attempt to infuse a primarily secular holiday artifact with Christian origins and meanings.”

Another story suggests a choirmaster in at the Cologne Cathedral in 17th Century Germany bent straight sticks into a J shape to symbolize the shepherd’s staff, then gave them to children to keep them quiet during the Nativity scene reenactment during Christmas Eve Mass.

Snopes noted “significant historical problems” with that account of the origin of the candy cane.

“Despite the authoritative-sounding appeal to ‘church history,’ no one has yet produced any documentation that either verifies this account as true or reliably dates it to the 17th century — it exists only in the form of anecdote, recorded no earlier than the mid-20th century,” the site wrote. “Moreover, English-language references to “candy canes” (1866) and their association with Christmas (1874) didn’t begin to pop up until the latter part of the 19th century, two hundred years after the treat had supposedly been invented and popularized as a Christmastime confection.”

Another story holds that a confectioner in Indiana dreamed up the candy cane to express his Christian faith. That version also suggests that besides the “J” shape to symbolize Jesus or the staff of the Good Shepherd, the white symbolizes “the Virgin Birth and the sinless nature of Jesus,” and that the candy was allowed to harden “to symbolize the Solid Rock, the foundation of the Church, and firmness of the promises of God.”

Though the candy became known as a candy cane used liberally during the holidays as a decoration or ornament, “the meaning is still there for those who ‘have eyes to see and ears to hear,’ ” according to the legend. But it said true believers would know that it symbolized Jesus’ birth.”

There are big problems with that account as well, according to Snopes, which said “one has to wonder how it is we supposedly know that one person invented the candy cane, we know where he lived, and we know precisely why he made candy canes the way he did, yet no one even knows his name.”

Snopes said a religious connection between candy canes and Christmas could be drawn by guessing “that possibly some unknown person, at some indefinite time, took a long-existing form of sweet (i.e., straight white sticks of sugar candy) that was already associated with Christmas and produced bent versions of it to represent a shepherd’s crook and/or make it easier to hang on Christmas trees”

“But even that general association is nothing more than mere supposition with no supporting evidence behind it,” Snopes said.

However, there is an indirect religious connection with candy canes.

in 1919, Georgia candymaker Bob McCormack enlisted the help of his brother-in-law, a Catholic priest named Gregory Harding Keller, who invented the Keller Machine to automatically bend the straight sticks into the familiar shape today.

Photo: Food And Drink / Shutterstock

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