History

The Other Christmas Ribbons

Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Keith Vollberg. The photo above shows ribbon candy in his grandmother’s special serving dish.  


Among those of us who celebrate the holiday, there are many Christmas traditions that nearly everyone enjoys and agrees with – Christmas trees, hanging stockings and the like. Some traditions, however, are a bit more…polarizing.

Take ribbon candy, for example. It’s been around longer than any of us and has its ardent followers. But, according to a 2018 poll of more than 13,000 customers of candystore.com, the peppermint curls are number nine on the list of the 10 worst holiday candies, followed by their confectionary sibling, the old-fashioned Christmas hard candy assortments with multi-colored cylinders, fruit flavored solid pieces more or less shaped like a berry, and swirled peppermint disks.

Large numbers of people seem to agree that these are delightful to look at, but don’t make the grade as a sweet treat. It’s my belief that during the last 40 to 50 years, at least here in the USA, the word “candy” has become synonymous with chocolates. And hey, I get it. I have Jacque Torres on speed dial, myself. But our taste has changed in such a way that we’ve probably lost an appreciation for other types of sweets. Or, we may have come to our senses. You decide.

image of ribbon candy

Photo credit: George Larcher, via Flickr

I recall my grandmother used to set out dishes of ribbon candy each holiday season, along with hard candies and assorted nuts. She was reliably the first person in our neighborhood to start decorating the house for the holidays, usually the first Saturday of December, even earlier, sometimes. It’s one of my favorite holiday memories. As a child, I thought she produced the candy from the same boxes that stored the decorations in the basement! It didn’t occur to me as a six or seven-year-old that she might buy a new box each year. At least, I certainly hope she did. Regardless, I enjoyed a few pieces every season.

Love it or hate it, it’s hard to argue there is a nostalgic charm in ribbon candy. So where did it come from?

Ribbon candy is a traditional Christmas candy that appears to have been a handmade confection for generations in Europe, though it is unclear exactly where the candy was first created.

Hand Crafted in Europe, Mass Produced in America

Legend has it that candy makers made the candy to be used as a Christmas decoration for their shops. The wave patterns were created by folding the candy over the thumb, creating a pattern something like the crimp around a pie crust. The F.B. Washburn Candy company Brockton, Massachusetts may be the first company in the U.S. to make and market ribbon candy, which was made in Washburn’s bakery as far back as 1856.

As with most industries in the 19th century, machines were eventually built to create the ribbon shapes. After stretching a warm, taffy-like sugar mixture into a strip, workers would feed the strip through a crimper to fold the candy back and forth over itself. When the candy cooled, it became the hard, shiny sweet we know and (some of us) love!

In the mid-20th century a Massachusetts company called Sevigny Candy began using an automated machine to create the batches and cut the ribbons into individual pieces at pre-determined intervals. Ribbon candy was, by now, a tradition in New England, and had become popular in many other parts of the country.

As times and tastes changed, Sevigny was sold to F.B. Washburn Candy, and they still sell ribbon candy under the Sevigny name today. In addition to ribbon candy, F.B Washburn is the manufacturer of a popular line of canisters of old fashioned hard candies and filled hard candies.

christmas hard candies

Certainly, these aren’t the only purveyors of the snack. Over the years, lots of candy makers like Brach’s and Hilliards made their own versions, and companies introduced cinnamon, fruit and other flavors of ribbon candy. The classic, though, remains the red and white ribbon with peppermint flavoring.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to sit back with a piece of peppermint ribbon and enjoy a Christmassy moment. So what if the expiration date was last year? Let’s just call it a tribute to Gram, okay? Cheers!