The contemporary cacao-chocolate industry benefits greatly from seasonal sales surrounding major American holidays. In the U.S. market, Easter/Passover, Christmas/Hannukah, Halloween, and St. Valentine’s Day see large spikes in candy and chocolate sales. These contemporary patterns of chocolate purchasing and consumption are intimately bound to a broader historical and social context. By exploring associations between chocolate and each of these major candy-selling holidays, I analyze the legacies of colonialism, religious debates, gender stereotypes, and industrialization in modern consumption and gift-giving patterns.
The candy industry is a giant in the U.S. economy. Nielson (2015) reports that candy, including chocolate and non-chocolate products, is the third top-selling category among food and non-alcoholic beverage categories in America with $20.8 billion in sales in 2014. American consumers buy candy year-round, making up the majority of all candy dollar sales (Nielson 2015). However, seasonal candy sales are a fast-growing sector of the candy industry, increasing by 5.8% in 2014 (Nielson 2015). Nearly 20% of all annual candy sales in 2014 occurred during five top-selling holiday weeks (Nielson 2015). These top 5 holiday weeks are, in order of greatest to least candy sales: Easter/Passover, Halloween, Valentine’s Day, Pre-Christmas/Hanukkah, and Christmas/Hanukkah (Nielson 2015). During each of these holiday seasons chocolate sales spike along with the sales of all candies. Chocolate is an illustrative example that sheds light on broader changes in consumption and underlying social meanings over time.
Winter Holidays and Hot Chocolate: A Colonial Legacy
The Judeo-Christian winter holidays of Christmas and Hannukah account for two of the top five weeks of all candy sales in the United States. Chocolate is an important part of these holidays. During Hannukah, traditional chocolate coins wrapped in gold and silver foil are gifted to children (Prichep 2014). During Christmas celebrations, people bake chocolate chip cookies for Santa Claus and exchange chocolates as gifts. Throughout the winter holidays, hot chocolate is a special treat. In the following clip from the Polar Express, a children’s Christmas movie, hot chocolate is associated with the Christmas holiday and is depicted as a childhood luxury.
Chocolate as a beverage has a long and complex history that highlights European colonialism. Chocolate is one preparation of the beans from the tree theobroma cacao. Cacao was first domesticated and consumed by Mesoamerican Olmec, Aztec, and Maya peoples (Coe and Coe 1996). For these indigenous Mesoamericans, cacao was a beverage, not a solid bar (Sampeck and Thayn 2017). The most treasured part of the cacao beverage was the foam, which was produced by pouring the beverage on high from one vessel to another and later by mixing with a molinillo (a colonial invention) (Coe and Coe 1996). The image below depicts a Maya woman pouring cacao to create foam as was common practice. Today, we still add foam to our hot chocolate in the form of marshmallows and whipped cream (Coe and Coe 1996, 49; Leissle 2018). Contrary to modern hot chocolate, cacao was sometimes consumed cold by the Mesoamericans (Coe and Coe 1996). Maya and Aztec elites also exchanged cacao as a gift in royal marriages, military victories, holiday ceremonies, and political negotiations (Leissle 2018). The history of chocolate as a beverage and gift extends to the very origins of domesticated cacao.
Hot chocolate came to resemble what we know today through European colonial modification. Spanish colonizers came to refer to all cacao preparations as chocolate because the most profitable cacao-producing region, Izalcos, was known for a specific preparation named “chocolatl” (Sampeck and Thayn 2017, 79). Cacao was introduced to Europe by Spanish colonizers as “chocolate,” a hot beverage. Europeans adapted the traditional cacao beverages to include ingredients that were common in Europe, such as cinnamon, almonds, sugar, and floral elements (Sampeck and Thayn 2017, 85). Chocolate-drinking spread among the European royalty via intermarriage, and material culture developed around chocolate (Coe and Coe 1996). The French elite served chocolate in a silver chocolatiere with porcelain cups and saucers, which can also be seen in the clip from Polar Express (Coe and Coe 1996, 158-9). North American chocolate tastes and recipes most closely resemble the British and European preparations of hot chocolate, transmitted to America during our own colonial period (Sampeck and Thayn 2017, 89). Thus, the story of hot chocolate and its significant place in our own holidays draws heavily on early Mesoamerican rituals and traditions as well as colonial European modifications. The experience of a creamy hot chocolate today is intimately bound to a legacy of colonialism.
Easter, Chocolate, and the Church
The Easter and Passover spring holidays account for the single greatest week of candy sales annually. In the week preceding Easter in 2014 Americans spent $823 million on candy and purchased 146 million pounds of sweets (Fahey 2016). This level of consumption is interesting given the history of chocolate, the Catholic church, and the Lenten season.
In the Catholic religious tradition, the Easter holiday marks the end of Lent, months of fasting and reflection. Upon cacao’s introduction to European society, the Catholic clergy debated whether consuming chocolate beverages broke the fast. Catholic missionaries were active in the colonization and Christianization of indigenous Mesoamericans and had early exposure to cacao. Beginning in 1591 with Juan de Cardenas, militant clergymen argued that, though beverages (as chocolate was in those days) were generally exempt from the fast, chocolate offered substantial nourishment, which would break the fast (Coe and Coe 1996, 149). Debates raged in the clergy for nearly three centuries over the issue of chocolate and the fast, pitting the chocolate-trading Jesuits against the puritanical Dominicans (Coe and Coe 1996, 149). Seven Catholic popes commented on the issue over the years, arguing that consuming chocolate would not break the Lenten fast (Coe and Coe 1996, 150). Perhaps these clerical debates set us down the path of viewing chocolate as a sinful indulgence. Regardless, the heightened consumption of candy and chocolate for the Easter holiday marks the end of the fast and a time for celebratory indulgence. Had the Dominicans won the debate over chocolate and the fast, perhaps we would not see such excessive candy purchases in the week preceding Easter.
St. Valentine’s Day and Gendered Chocolate
Valentine’s Day is yet another major holiday for the chocolate industry. The holiday on which romantic partners gift heart-shaped boxes of chocolates to one another is also part of a broader context. Chocolate in particular is a common gift on Valentine’s Day because of its historical association with fertility. In indigenous Mesoamerican societies, cacao was considered an aphrodisiac and gifted at weddings for fertility (Coe and Coe 1996). The idea of chocolate as an aphrodisiac carried over into European societies and lingers to this day, though it has no factual basis. As Henderson (2015) and Butler (2018) detail, early chocolate companies began marketing their chocolates with romantic imagery, such as heart-shaped boxes and “kisses.” The association between chocolate and Valentine’s Day is a celebration of heterosexual romance that draws on a history of chocolate as an aphrodisiac.
The gifting of chocolates on Valentine’s Day also draws heavily on gender stereotypes. On Valentine’s Day, men are expected to purchase and gift chocolate to women. In the Russell Stover Valentine’s Day commercial below, the intended audience is men, who are instructed to gift chocolate to women for the holiday.
In chocolate advertising and narratives surrounding Valentine’s Day, women are meant to be seduced by the sinfully indulgent chocolate and-by extension-the men who gifted it to them. The following Ferrero Rocher Valentine’s Day commercial depicts a woman who is seduced by the decadent chocolate and subsequently embraces the romantic partner who gifts these chocolates to her. The message is one of chocolate as a tool in heterosexual relationships that men can use to seduce women.
Gender stereotypes in advertisements for Valentine’s Day chocolates are by no means a recent development. Narratives of male gifting of chocolates and female seduction are prevalent throughout past advertisements as well. The Whitman’s Sampler advertisement below is from 1936. In American society, Valentine’s Day chocolates are associated with a long context of heterosexual romance and the trope of the seduced woman.
Halloween and Industrialized Chocolates
Nielson (2015) reports that candy sales in the week preceding Halloween total $787 million, coming in at the second highest week for candy sales in 2014. Halloween in its modern form centers around pre-packaged, standardized candies, but this was not always the case. Kawash (2010) and Nix (2018) provide a brief history of Halloween and candy. In the early 20th century, candy makers were not targeting Halloween as a candy holiday (Kawash 2010). Trick-or-treating first emerged in the 1930’s and 1940’s, and Halloween handouts were not restricted to candy at this time (Kawash 2010). By the 1950’s candy became an inexpensive and convenient Halloween handout, but candy was not yet the exclusive Halloween treat (Kawash 2010). Candy eventually won out as the face of Halloween handouts in the 1970’s because it was industrialized, standardized, pre-packaged, and safe from tampering (Kawash 2010).
These trends between candy and Halloween closely follow developments in the cacao-chocolate industry. In the early 20th century, the big American chocolate manufacturers were just getting started. At the end of the 19th century, Frank Mars, founder of the Mars chocolate company (creator of M&Ms, Snickers, Mars bars, Milky Ways, etc.), was still watching his mother make homemade candies and sweets in the family kitchen (Brenner 2000, 50). For the first decade of the 20th century, Frank Mars was experimenting with small-scale candy distribution and failing repeatedly (Brenner 2000). By the 1920’s Mars had built a profitable chocolate company, but it wasn’t until his son, Forrest Mars, took control of the company in the 1960’s that Mars, Inc. became a giant in the American chocolate industry. Forrest Mars mechanized the factory, vertically integrated production, and industrialized the production and labor at every level (Brenner 2000).
Similar developments were occurring in the Hershey’s chocolate company. In the first decade of the 20th century, Milton Hershey was building his factory town at Hershey, Pennsylvania (D’Antonio 2006). The first Hershey’s Kiss was manufactured in 1907 (D’Antonio 2006). Milton Hershey industrialized his company by vertically and horizontally integrating production. Hershey’s chocolate factory did it all–from building trains to ship sugar from Cuba to housing workers to sourcing milk from local cows (D’Antonio 2006). This consolidation of Hershey’s supply chain took place over the first half of the 20th century. Hershey’s was the well-integrated and undisputed American national chocolate brand until the mid-20th century when competitors like Mars and Reese’s gained power in the national market (D’Antonio 2006; Brenner 2000).
By the time Halloween became a major candy holiday in the 1970’s, the American chocolate industry was dominated by Hershey’s and Mars (Martin 2019). Hershey’s and Mars alone make 84.2% of all snack-sized Halloween candy, with another 15.2% contributed by Nestle (Martin 2019). Internationally, the Big 5 chocolate companies (Hershey’s, Mars, Nestle, Kraft [Cadbury], and Ferrero) dominate the market (Martin 2019). Chocolate manufacturing and distribution is concentrated in an oligopoly of companies. The association of Halloween with pre-packaged, bite-sized candies emerged as these large companies developed and industrialized. Halloween as we know it today is a consequence of the industrialization and integration of the American chocolate industry.
In analyzing the history of chocolate in each of these major candy-selling holidays, I have uncovered legacies of colonialism, religious debate, gender stereotypes, and industrialization in the modern cacao-chocolate industry. To understand why and how the cacao-chocolate industry operates today, it is important to examine this broader social and historical context. Americans’ holiday favorites of hot chocolate, chocolate bunnies, heart-shaped chocolate boxes, and bite-sized chocolates were all brought to us via interesting legacies in the development of the chocolate industry. Next time you enjoy a foamy hot chocolate or Hershey’s kiss, consider the history of cacao and chocolate from its origins in indigenous Mesoamerica to its modern industrialization and mass marketing.
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