The Shepherd’s Crook (& Candy Cane) as a Symbol of Christmas

The Bible holds a high view of shepherds, with David writing a beautiful psalm about the Lord being his Shepherd, and with Jesus describing himself as the Good Shepherd.  But common Jewish culture did not look favorably on shepherds.  In his book Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus, Joachim Jeremias points out that shepherds were not allowed to hold a judicial office in Israel and were not even admitted as witnesses.  Citing the writings of rabbis from the time of Jesus, Jeremias reports the popular opinion of shepherds: “Most of the time they were dishonest and thieving; they led their herds onto other people’s land and pilfered the produce of the land.” A Midrash—an ancient Jewish interpretation on the Bible—on Psalm 23:2 argues, “There is no more disreputable occupation than that of a shepherd.”

Nevertheless, it was shepherds who were tasked with the responsibility of caring for sheep in Israel.  About the depth of their care for the sheep, Ray Vander Laan writes, “Shepherds in Israel don’t drive the sheep; they lead them along the narrow paths that still crisscross the Judean hillsides.  ‘This is the way to go,’ the shepherd says to the sheep.  ‘Follow me.’  And the green pastures of Israel are not belly-deep alfalfa; they’re sparse tufts of grass springing up in a sometimes unbelievably rocky landscape.  From one moment to the next, the sheep depend on the leading of the shepherd and the sufficiency of the grazing he provides….

“The shepherd isn’t always out in front, leading his sheep, however.  As the sun sets on the Judean hills, with their confused tangle of trails, steep cliffs, and deep wadis, it becomes increasingly difficult for the sheep to follow the shepherd and increasingly likely that they may misstep, fall, or get lost.  Then, in the lengthening twilight, when the sheep must pass through the darkest shadows in the deepest wadis, the shepherd drops back and walk with them.” (Echoes of His Presence, p. 27-28)

Perhaps the angels announced Jesus’ birth to shepherds because God wanted to make it clear that the good news of Christ’s arrival on earth was for all people—even the most excluded.  Or perhaps it was because God knew that shepherds especially would understand the significance of God coming to walk among his people.  Or perhaps it is simply that shepherds happened to be around when the angels could not contain their excitement aboutthe birth of the Savior and burst out into song in the hills above Bethlehem.

For whatever reason it was, shepherds are forever associated with the story of Jesus’ birth, and, with connection to the shepherds, the candy cane has become a beautiful symbol of Christmas. 

Legends have claimed that the candy cane was invented by a choir director in Cologne, Germany or by a candy maker in Indiana to bear witness to the spiritual truths of Christmas, but evidence points against the authenticity of such legends.  Nevertheless, the candy cane does resemble a shepherd’s crook and contains some wonderful symbolism to remind us of the deeper meanings of Christmas:

  • The candy cane is made of hard candy which can remind us that Jesus is the Rock that we can depend upon.
  • The candy cane begins as pure white which can remind us of the virgin birth and Jesus’ sinless nature.
  • The candy cane is striped with red which can remind us of the stripes of scourging Jesus received and of the blood he shed for us in dying for our forgiveness.
  • The candy cane is made in the shape of a shepherd’s crook which can remind us of the shepherds who came to greet the newborn Savior or which can remind us of Jesus as our Good Shepherd.  Or the “J” shape of the candy cane can stand for Jesus.
  • The peppermint flavor of the candy cane can remind us of the gift of spices which the Magi brought for Jesus. 

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