Chocolate eggs seem to have been in the shops since just after Christmas. Perhaps next week, straight after the Easter bank holiday, Halloween “trick or treat” sweets will be available! Or maybe I’ve forgotten some other festival that structures our calendars and consumption. Setting aside the mysteries of marketing and shopping, what interests me here is the connection between Easter and chocolate. What’s that about? Why do we eat so much chocolate at this point in the year?
Chocolate Easter eggs have been available in Britain since 1873, following the development of a hollow mould and a recipe for the chocolate mix. At first they were an expensive luxury but became more affordable and therefore more popular in 1905 with the development of a milk chocolate version. Most of us like chocolate (even those who can’t eat it because it causes them migraines or other problems). We like the taste and the fact that it makes us happy (technically it stimulates the release of endorphins). But why do we eat so much of it at Easter?
Before people ate chocolate eggs at Easter they ate eggs. A number of reasons can be given for this. In pre-Christian times, in some places, eggs were associated with rebirth. They seem to have been adopted by Christians quite quickly as a symbol of resurrection. As Easter is the Christian festival that celebrates resurrection the display of eggs (decorated or in meals) became popular. It is also the case, however, that eggs were among the foods restricted or largely avoided during Lent, the period of abstinence that leads up to Easter. As they were permitted on Fridays in Lent, and as one of the highlights of the Easter festival is “Good Friday”, eggs gained new value. Few people these days, especially in Britain, and even among Catholics and the Orthodox, keep the Lent fast strictly. Nonetheless, the association of eggs with Easter is deep in our shared culture.
Perhaps these are reasons enough to eat chocolate in egg shapes. Perhaps the ebb and flow of abstinence and celebration would enable us to enjoy festive consumption more than we do when chocolate eggs are available all year round. Who knows? But there’s something else about chocolate that’s worth remembering. There’s a longer history to its association with festivals, and especially those of life, death and rebirth. For that we have to go back before the European invasions of Central and South America. Chocolate was part of the “Food of the Gods” among the Mayans of southern Mexico, Guatemala and neighbouring areas before and during the Conquest.
Chocolate is made by roasting and grinding (conching) the seeds of a variety of cacao called “Theobroma”, that is “Food of the Gods”. Mayan knowledge is remembered in the Latin name given to the plant by the eighteenth century botanist Linnaeus! (The plant is related to the Kola tree, the seeds of which are widely used in West Africa for divination.) Among the Mayans, chocolate was associated with the creation of the cosmos and of humanity. Intriguingly, twin deities descended into an underworld, survived unpleasant dismemberment and returned to life empowered to create humans. You can follow their journey in the Popul Vuh or “Book of Community” (copied in the sixteenth century by a Dominican Friar). Chocolate was made into a frothy and stimulating drink enjoyed by people across Central America. But it was also associated with blood, sacrifice and rebirth. For contemporary Mayans and other indigenous peoples in the region chocolate remains important, alongside the Easter eggs which, perhaps, resonate with at least some aspects of ancestral cultures.
Happy chocolate festival!
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