The Gift of Chocolate at Christmas: Origin, History and Traditions
What is the history of chocolate at Christmas? Where does the tradition of giving the gift of chocolate come from? Let's take a look at the origin of gift-giving and chocolate that has developed our Christmas season into how we know it today...
The Pagan Roots of Christmas
Originally, Christmas was a Pagan festival where we celebrated the Pagan Holidays of Yule and Saturnalia. Winter Solstice represented the start of a new cycle, as the sun slowly begins to return and the daylight starts to increase. The date of 25th December began several days of celebration in honour of the agricultural god, Saturn, and gifts were exchanged during this time.Gifts were given as a gesture of good luck, in the hope of a bountiful harvest in the coming year.
It wasn't until the 4th century that the Pagan festivities were incorporated with Christianity. But, the tradition of gift-giving was carried on and to this day Christmas is synonymous with giving presents. So, where does Chocolate come into it all?
The Origin of Chocolate
Cocoa, from which chocolate is created, is said to have originated in the Amazon at least 4,000 years ago. Long before Europeans discovered, and fell in love with, chocolate, the cocoa bean was initially discovered in Mesoamerica (now modern day Mexico) and first used by the Olmecs, Mayans and Aztecs.
It is believed that chocolate first arrived in Europe during the 1500s, likely brought by Spanish monks and conquerors who had travelled to the Americas. It is also perceived that in 1544, when the Kekchi Maya of Guatemala visited Prince Philip in Spain, they brought with them chocolate as one of their many gifts.
With the colonization of the Americas, during the 16th and 17th centuries, chocolate was a rare and precious product that was typically enjoyed by the elite.
However by around 1850, sugar became a lot more affordable, which then meant the consumption of Chocolate became a lot more widespread across all ranks of society. This, and the process of conching introduced by Rodolphe Lindt in1879, revolutionized how chocolate was manufactured and allowed companies to produce large quantities of chocolate inexpensively.
Back in the Middle Ages, on Winter Solstice, each fireplace would burn large yule logs of wood to heat homes, creating a fire around which the whole family would gather. This tradition was reignited in the 12th Century when the Catholic Church introduced rituals such as sprinkling holy water, salt, wine or oil onto burning logs to prevent bad luck.
Much later on, in around the 19th century, these wood logs became a form of decoration instead. Eventually becoming an edible treat, as chefs decided to turn them into pastry logs, using Chocolate icing to mimic the bark of a natural log. And now, in the present day, Chocolate Yule Logs are a staple of our festivities!
Another origin story that is believed to have introduced coins given at Christmas comes from the legend of St Nicholas in the 5th Century. It is believed that St Nicholas would visit parishioners houses at Christmas time, dropping gold coins down the chimney, through windows or into stockings.
Inspired by these deeds, the chocolate coin has become a symbolic festive offering, and was produced in chocolate form in around the 1920s. The coins would be used to decorate the Christmas tree and to fill children's stockings.
The custom of counting down advent dates back to the 5th century and it was originally a period of time where monks would fast before Christmas. The modern advent is thought to have originated in Germany in the mid-1900s when they began creatively marking the days leading up to Christmas. This would involve ticking off chalk marks on walls or doors, lighting candles or placing straws in a Nativity crib.
After the war, the advent calendar had a renaissance and began to appear outside of Germany. They initially contained 24 doors with biblical verse in, or an image depicting snowy, winter scenes.
The first Advent calendars containing chocolate were produced by Cadbury in 1958. But, were not extensively popular until the 1980s.
Chocolate traditions at Christmas time in the modern day are not the same as they have been throughout their various evolutions... but what would Christmas be today without it. There is no better present to give this Christmas - after all, it’s a tradition! Shop our full Christmas range to give the gift of chocolate.