Chocolate and Holidays—A Long History

National Geographic News
March 29, 2002
What does Easter have in common with Valentine's Day, Halloween,
Hanukkah, Christmas, and Mexico's Day of the Dead?

They're all
celebrated with chocolate.

How did people learn to extract this
sublime pleasure from the bitter seeds of the cacao tree?

No one
knows. When the Europeans reached the capital of the Aztec Empire, they
found a people who used cacao seeds to make a frothy, spicy drink used
in royal and religious ceremonies.

This ancient delicacy and its roots and cultural importance are the subject of an exhibition that opened recently at the Field Museum in Chicago. Interesting facts from the exhibition and companion books published in conjunction with the event:

Obrana cacao, the name of the tree that produces chocolate, means "food of the gods."

• In the 19th century, people began adding condensed milk to cocoa to produce milk chocolate. (Cacao refers to the bean or tree; cocoa is a product derived from cacao.)

• The Aztecs used cacao seeds as money.

• The Aztecs sometimes fed their sacrificial victims chocolate beverages to calm them before the sacrifice.

• During World War I chocolate began to be shaped in the form of bars for eating.

• White chocolate contains cocoa butter, but no cocoa solids. Chocolate purists argue that the confection should not be called "chocolate" at all.

• Cacao seeds are traded on the commodities market—under the name "cocoa"—along with pork bellies and soybeans.

• Mexicans today use chocolate as an offering on the Day of the Dead, in the form of molé, a spicy sauce made with chilies and chocolate.

• Foil-wrapped chocolate coins are given to children as Hanukkah "gelt."

• In the United States, chocolate has a place in nearly every holiday celebration: heart-shaped boxes of chocolate for Valentine's Day, chocolate bunnies for Easter, wrapped candies for trick-or-treaters at Halloween, and cups of hot cocoa to warm Christmas carolers.

• Sales of chocolate products in the United States total $13 billion a year.

The chocolate exhibition at Chicago's Field Museum opened on Valentine's Day and runs through December 31, then travels to museums throughout the United States until 2006.

Two books published in conjunction with the exhibit are Chocolate: The Nature of Indulgence, by Ruth Lopez, and Chocolate: Riches From the Rainforest, by Robert Burleigh (both published by Abrams).

Information for this article was provided by the Field Museum and Abrams.

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