Due to candy corporations and their relentless push to commercialize any cultural event; Almost every holiday is now associated with chocolate. Heart shaped boxes of candy line shelves in the weeks leading up to Valentine’s Day, followed by chocolate eggs for Easter, and boxes of chocolate once more for Mother’s Day. Candy corn was once a Halloween staple, but it has now been almost entirely replaced by bite-sized chocolate candy bars. Similarly, candy canes are still a popular decoration during the Christmas season but few would choose one as a treat over a chocolate Santa. While many holidays are now considered occasions to indulge in chocolate, at one time it was only Easter that was seen like this. Easter eggs were among the first mass produced cocoa confections, and their popularity played a role in how candy companies would go on to approach other holidays.
The connection between eggs and Easter likely originated when early Christians appropriated the traditions of popular local spring festivals into their new religion. Within these traditions, eggs already represented resurrection. Christians would add another layer to the symbolism, seeing the broken eggshell as emblematic of Christ’s empty tomb. Chocolate eggs emerged much later and only became widespread at the end of the 1870s, when British chocolatiers used moulds to shape the pliable mix of cocoa butter, cocoa powder, and sugar into solid chocolate eggs. In the following decade, Tzar Alexander III began the tradition of bestowing bejeweled eggs as an Easter gift to members of his family.
The mass production of tin foil lead to chocolate Easter eggs becoming a popular seasonal gift. The decorative foil wrapping allowed them to resemble the fashionable Faberge eggs while also protecting the chocolate inside. The association between Easter and chocolate is often understood as simply beginning with the chocolate Easter egg. In reality, this relationship is far older and was first recorded shortly after the Columbian Exchange when Mesoamericans were first exposed to Christianity.
The scientific name for the cacao plant; Theobroma cocoa, begins with a word that directly translates from Latin into English as “Food of the Gods”. The second word is derived from “cacahuatl”, a word from the Nahuatl language that was in turn derived from the older word “kakawa”. The speakers of these languages saw the seeds of the cacao plant as more than just currency or an indicator of high status; it was literally the food of their gods. Spiritual views associated with cocoa in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica could be understood from artefacts recovered at Copán, a World heritage Site in Honduras that was once the Capital city of a powerful lowland kingdom. The tombs of rulers at Copán contained vessels with trace amounts of theobromine and caffeine, indicating that they once held cocoa. Cocoa iconography could also be found on containers, stalae, and buildings at Copán and similar sites, including depictions of kings with cups of frothy cocoa at their feet and images of dead nobles reborn as cocoa plants. The theme of ancestors reborn as cocoa plants was relatively common, and existed as both images of the literal plant sprouting from the body as well as well as more symbolic forms.
On the sarcophagus of Pakal, a seventh century king, royal ancestors are depicted as human-tree hybrids bearing cocoa pods from their bodies. Related to this was the motif of the maize god sprouting cocoa pods from his arms and legs while contorting his body to seemingly embody a cocoa tree. This depiction can be observed in the Dresden codex, as well as small sculptures that were found in ruins at Río Bec, Mexico. This imagery demonstrates that cocoa and maize, crops that were of paramount importance to food security in Mesoamerica, also had a linked relationship that was related to resurrection. Anthropologist Cameron L. McNeil says that “cacao and maize are an important ritual pair in Mesoamerican cosmology. Both are combined in ritual beverages with sacred water to feed the gods and ancestors so that they will work to provide agricultural fertility.” McNeil describes a cocoa beverage once made by the people of Cholula with water that washed the blades of knives after their use in human sacrifice. More commonly, annatto would be used in such beverages to give them a vibrant red color reminiscent of blood. Such beverages played a role in annual rituals related to resurrection that were designed to ensure favorable harvests.
The relationship between cocoa, maize, and resurrection is further developed in the Popol Vuh, a pre-Columbian text often referred to as the foundational sacred narrative of the K’iche’ people. In the third book of the Popol Vuh, the body of a deity generally referred to by scholars as the “tonsured maize god” is buried in a deep cave within a mountain. His spirit ascends to heaven and in some interpretations transforms into different celestial bodies. His body on the other hand, remains within the cave, and from his corpse springs a cocoa tree followed by other plants that bear edible fruits and seeds. The maize god eventually returns, but his initial sacrifice has provided sustenance for humanity. Scholars see significance in the fact that cocoa was the first plant to emerge from his corpse. Simon Martin, an archeologist specializing in Mayan Glyphs sees additional importance in images associated with this myth. He points to artwork on vases that depicts cocoa growing from the body of the maize god within the darkness of the cave while being observed by a seated figure referred to as God L. God L is often associated with wealth and darkness and regarded as a ruler of the Underworld. It is surmised that his wealth comes from his control of the shaded groves where cocoa plants thrive, as well as the dark areas where cocoa beans ferment and become more flavorful.
Even beyond this resurrection motif, an association between cocoa and the underworld can be observed elsewhere. On the first page of an Aztec manuscript known as the Codex Fejérváry-Mayer, cosmic trees are used to mark the cardinal directions. According to archeologist Wendy Ashmore, the use of a cocoa plant to mark the south is symbolic of a gateway to the underworld.
Following the arrival of Europeans to the New World, Mayans were forcibly converted to Christianity. When presented with the concept of a deity who dies on a cross before returning, as well as the symbolic consumption of that deity’s flesh and blood, they recognized an opportunity to discretely disguise their traditional practices. Diego Durán, a Dominican friar writing in the sixteenth century observed that many practices of native religion were syncretized into Roman Catholicism. He described elements of the rain and fertility festivals of late April and early May being incorporated into Feast Days. This included offerings of cocoa beans to Christian saints in lieu of Maya gods as well as the consumption of cocoa beverages during these celebrations.
This represents the earliest association between chocolate and Easter, centuries before the Easter Egg was even conceptualized, and shortly after Christianity reached the New World. Today, elements of the earliest relationship still exist.
In Guatemala, the traditional rain ceremonies of the Ch’orti’ Maya involves offerings of cocoa to a spring seen in local lore as the place where Jesus was crucified. This reflects a common characteristic in the regional folk Catholicism where Christ and the traditional maize god have become conflated. Perhaps the most prominent example of this is at the Metropolitan Cathedral in Mexico City, a Gothic church built over portions of the Templo Mayor, the main Aztec temple of Tenochtitlan. In a side chapel of this cathedral is a sculpture that depicts a seated Christ shortly before his crucifixion. Like other statues of this nature, he wears a crown of thorns, and bleeds from his knees. Unlike any other Christ statues however, he holds a golden cocoa bough, and at his feet is a bowl of cocoa beans. According to historian Manuel Aguilar-Moreno; “when the Indians went to worship at the Cathedral, they left offerings of cacao beans as alms at the feet of Christ, much as they might have once paid tribute to gods at the Templo Mayor.” This practice continues, with pilgrims from all across Mexico placing cocoa beans in a modern version of a pre-Columbian ritual.
The connection between the maize god and Christ benefited the Catholic Church immensely. Not only did it encourage conversion to Christianity, it also enriched the clergy through the gifts of valuable chocolate. It is not however, the only element of the cocoa origin story from the Popol Vuh living on in modern Mesoamerican Easter celebrations. The cigar in the mouth and broad-brimmed hat originally associated with God L are now included in depictions of a complex folk saint known as Maximón. Elements of Maximón indicate that he is influenced by God L, as well as Satan, Apostles from the bible, and local folk heroes. In the highlands of Guatemala, Maximón presides over the death of Christ and rules in his place for five days of Holy Week. On Easter Sunday, Christ returns and defeats Maximón in a duel that takes the form of a street procession. At the Mayan New Year celebrations in the Yucatan Peninsula that often coincide with Easter, Maximón is also prominent. Here, he is paraded for five days before being disrobed and treated as an effigy of Judas Iscariot.
The story of the Maize God’s triumph is the oldest connection between chocolate and Easter. For cocoa farmers in the region, this represents an opportunity. It is an authentic story, linked to local terroir and tradition. It is a chance to reclaim the narrative associated with a festival responsible for significant chocolate sales. A chance to chart a new course for cocoa that places the culture and traditions of cocoa growing regions first.
Banner Image via Wikimedia Commons.