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."

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