SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — For more than a quarter of a century, Margaret Hassey, now 95, makes her yearly jaunt from Attleboro, MA, to Sweenor’s Chocolates in Wakefield just to see candy canes being made and get a special photograph with Santa Claus and founder Bill Sweenor.
“I love seeing the family,” she said, but her granddaughter confided that she also likes being in the small and cozy kitchen to smell the peppermint as the flavoring is poured into molten sugar that will shortly harden into the red and white favorite at Christmas time.
Going there this one day is as much a tradition for those two as for the Sweenor family who for more than three decades have shared this holiday spirit with the community of followers friends and customers - who now expand well beyond Wakefield.
Starting in 1987, once a year they have opened up the kitchen for a tour and it’s always to show making candy canes, said Brian Sweenor, who with his sister, Lisa Sweenor Dunham, run the candy-making business that their father, Bill, started. He inherited the taste for candy — and making it — from his father and grandfather.
It’s all in the family, so to speak, and on this day, everyone is family. The public is welcomed at Sweenor’s store to ignite their own start of the holiday season, share memories, have a first-time experience of seeing this iconic holiday treat hand-made rather than buying mass-produced, machine-designed candy-cane productions.
The treat, many visitors say, is just that - a treat for them. It’s about the Sweenors helping them kick off the holiday season, Christmas in particular, and being part of a moment that creates it.
“We don’t miss it this day, the first Sunday in December. We love going there,” said Bonnie Moore, Hassey’s granddaughter. “It’s all family. It’s the same people every year.”
Chris and Danika Hubbard, of South Kingstown, filed through the line into the kitchen with their three young children, Maia, Lucia and Tristan, in tow. The cold and threat of snow in the afternoon didn’t deter them.
“I’m really excited to see this,” said Maia, with Lucia, adding that “The candy is awesome.” That triggered younger Tristen to point at the candy making and blurt out, “I love candy!”
Their father, Chris, smiled from behind them. “We like to come and see this, and we really like to support a local business that is giving up time to do this for us,” he said.
For Jen Rock of Richmond, it’s a tradition she wouldn’t miss, she said, holding her three-year-old daughter, Skyler. Behind her smiled Rock’s mother, Beth Tidswell of Coventry.
Tidswell brought young Jen, when she was about Skyler’s age, and with them was Tidswell’s grandmother. “I’ll remember it always and I want the same thing for my daughter,” Rock added.
Long-time resident Veronica Wright of Wakefield came with her daughters Rowen, 6, and Lilly, 13, and Wright’s mother and stepfather, Nikki and Tony Sciolto of Wakefield. They have gone every year since the family moved in 1998 to South Kingstown.
“I like watching them and the smell, the smell is so good,” said Wright. That smell comes from a special recipe for making candy canes, just one part of the process at Sweenor’s for producing this candy that hangs on Christmas trees, goes on packages and gets put in stockings.
Dressed in their red shirts embossed in white with “Sweenor’s Chocolates, Wakefield, RI,” all members of the staff working Sunday wore them around the kitchen in the Wakefield store on Charles Street. Each person had their respective roles.
Founder Bill Sweenor picked up a large bags of sugar and poured them into boiling water at 312 degrees. After a while his son, Brian Sweenor, poured the gelling yellow liquid on a steel table. Like a pizza maker, he flips and kneads it until a dense consistency developed. Two staff members drop green and red coloring on the table.
Soon the gel is ready for pulling. Brian places a thick glob — called a batch — on a hook nearby the table. He pulls and twists and turns it like he’s doing a gym workout. It soon transforms from yellow to white. When that happens, he knows it’s time to handoff to his brother, Jeff, and sister, Lisa.
As he’s done on this special day in December for many years, Jeff grabs the batch and stretches it out on warm canvas batch roller where colors mix with the white sugar. As he twists and turns it, soon a serpentine shape appears in stripes of green, red and white. In a rhythm that comes from practice, he rapidly snips it into pieces about nine inches long.
These are pushed to his sister, Lisa, standing nearby. She makes the crook on the top as the conveyor-like process takes the candy canes -- by this time hardened -- to others staff, including her husband, Jim, their sons, Drew and Cole, and Jeff’s wife, Sheila, who package them into small cellophane envelopes.
“It can get away from you so fast,” said Jeff about the timing of getting the batch-gelled sugar twisted into shape by hand, cut and then the crook made. “If it’s not the right temperature, if it gets too cold, it will harden into a brick and if it’s too warm, it’s silly putty.”
In total, Brian said, they make about 3,000 during the weekend after Thanksgiving. These will be sold in their Wakefield and Garden City stores.
Watching this orchestration of candy making was Ramie Daponte of Rehoboth, MA. Driving nearly an hour to Wakefield promised to be an entertaining adventure for the four children with she and friend, Courtenay St. Germain, also of Rehoboth.
“I thought it would be fun for the kids to see. I’ve never seen candy canes made. This is really interesting,” she said after watching the Sweenors move through their time-honored tradition now in the fourth generation of family.
While a hectic day for these confectioners whose costs exceed any profits from sponsoring it, they consider this event a holiday gift for their community, customers and admirers.
“It adds to the sense of community. People love holiday traditions. For many people, this is part of their holiday traditions,” said Lisa Sweenor Dunham.
Candy Canes have a colorful history
Candy canes, not only are Christmas time treats, but offer a religious significance, too, said Matthew Robinson, 18, of South Kingstown, as he watched them being made at Sweenor’s Chocolates.
For many people, the hard candy with a peppermint taste is a symbol of the Christmas treat they inherited from their families and handed down through generations. Yet, that taste isn’t the only heritage this candy has.
“I find their history in religion to be fascinating and interesting,” said Robinson, a philosophy major in college, and a visitor each year to the Sweenor’s annual demonstration of candy-cane making since he was young.
Cindy Mills of the Perryville Bible Church agreed. She uses a religious theme on the cards that have candy canes attached during the church’s outdoor living nativity scene with real animals and people re-enacting 10 scenes in the biblical Christmas story.
It will be held this weekend, December 7 and 8, from 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. on church grounds at 22 Moonstone Beach Road in Wakefield. It annually draws about 300 people, Mills said, pointing out, newcomers learn about the candy cane’s religious role in American culture.
“It’s all part of the religious significance of the Christmas,” she said, noting that candy canes have been included in that ceremony for the 22 years the church has offered it.
Candy History, a website (candyhistory.net) offers information about origins of different kinds of candy, including the candy cane and religious interpretations around it since it’s most prominent role is associated with Christmas marking the birth of Jesus Christ.
Brian Sweenor, who operates the confectionary store, said he also once wrote an article about the religious underpinnings of this candy his family has made for generations.
The original candy cane was made 350 years ago and was white, completely straight and only flavored with sugar, according to Candy History in an explanation on its website. Legend has it that in 1670, the cane-shaped candy became historical when a choirmaster at the Cologne Cathedral in Germany bent the sugar-sticks into canes to appear as shepherd’s crook, the website said.
The historical review also points out that the all-white candy canes became a popular tradition in religious and non-religious ways throughout Europe and America. It said that the first documented example of the use of candy canes to celebrate Christmas occurred in 1847, when August Imgard, a German-Swedish immigrant, from Wooster, Ohio, decorated the Christmas tree with paper ornaments and candy canes.
The first red and white striped candy canes, Candy History pointed out, were made at the turn of the 19th century. At the same time the first striped candy canes appeared, and candy makers added the peppermint flavor, which quickly became a traditional flavor.
Various religious leaders, such as Perryville Bible Church’s Mills, as well as Candy History, have attributed certain religious symbolism to the shape and color of candy canes.
They have interpreted the red stripes of the candy cane as the blood or love of Christ and the white the purity or holiness of Christ, with three fine stripes suggesting the Holy Trinity. They also have said that turning the candy cane to the ‘’J’’ shape represents the name of Jesus while the other way shows a crook or bishop’s staff associated with Christ as the bishop of the Christian church.
The solid texture or hardness of the candy cane is said to symbolize the solid rock foundation of the Christian church or the dependable nature of Jesus’s love, they said, and peppermint flavor is supposed to stem either from the wise men’s gifts of spice to the baby Jesus or from an herb called hyssop, which in the Old Testament hyssop was the symbol of purity of Jesus and the history of sacrifice attributed to him.
Reflecting on these religious symbols, Robinson noted both the sweetness of the candy cane and the pleasure it brings and said, “It brings joy into people’s life, just like Christ.”