#SwedishChristmas: How one Swedish woman influenced the candy cane

#SwedishChristmas: How one Swedish woman influenced the candy cane
Little known outside Sweden, Amalia Eriksson is the woman responsible for the popularization of the distinctive red-and-white-striped peppermint candy stick known as polkagris. Photo: Anna Hållams/TT
Every day until Christmas Eve, The Local explains the unique history behind Swedish Christmas traditions in our own Advent calendar.
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There’s a good deal of myth and misinformation surrounding the classic candy cane closely associated with Christmas. Undocumented and apocryphal origin stories abound, and have spread so widely thanks to social media that even fact-checking site Snopes has addressed the subject.

One thing is certain, however. Sweden claims an early and well-documented place in the history of the candy cane thanks to a woman named Amalia Eriksson.

In 1858, Amalia became both a mother and a widow. With no extended family to turn to for help and support, and with women’s opportunities severely restricted under Swedish law, she took the bold step of petitioning her local magistrate in Gränna, near Jönköping, to start her own business. She proposed a bakery, stating in her application that she intended to make a variety of baked goods, as well as a small peppermint candy she called polkagris. Permission was granted in 1859, and Amalia soon went into business.

Peppermint candy had undoubtedly existed before Amalia and polkagris came along, but Amalia had her own special recipe, and her early red-and-white-striped peppermint “rocks” became immensely popular in and around Gränna. Soon, she expanded her product line to include peppermint sticks with the distinctive red and white stripes.

Initially, she made polkagris only on weekends and public holidays, including Christmas, but her production and her business rapidly expanded. At some point, the polkagris stick was bent at one end, forming a polkakäpp (candy cane), so the candy could be hung from a Christmas tree.

Eventually, the popularity of polkagris became so great that imitations began to appear, but Amalia’s recipe – the original polkagris – remained known only to her and a few select others, including her daughter. In spite of the imitations, there seems to have been little doubt that Amalia’s product was the best. She and her polkagris were known throughout Sweden by the early 1900s, and in 1915, Amalia received the royal seal of approval when Crown Prince Gustaf Adolf and Crown Princess Margareta visited her bakery in Gränna .

Amalia died a wealthy and respected woman, aged 99, in 1923, leaving her daughter in charge of the business. Today, Gränna is still the centre of Swedish production of polkagris. Around a dozen sweet shops sell the candy, drawing hundreds of thousands of visitors each year.

Unfortunately, in the many narratives – apocryphal and otherwise – written about the history of the candy cane and its association with Christmas, Amalia and polkagris are rarely mentioned, despite a well-deserved place in this sweet tradition.

Each day until Christmas Eve, we're looking at the story behind one Swedish festive tradition. Find the rest of our #SwedishChristmas series HERE.


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